Conservatively Speaking

State Senator Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) represents parts of four counties: Milwaukee, Waukesha, Racine, and Walworth. Her Senate District 28 includes New Berlin, Franklin, Greendale, Hales Corners, Muskego, Waterford, Big Bend, the town of Vernon and parts of Greenfield, East Troy, and Mukwonago. Senator Lazich has been in the Legislature for more than a decade. She considers herself a tireless crusader for lower taxes, reduced spending and smaller government.

Banning texting while driving is unnecessary


During an interview with Mike Lowe of Fox 6 News shortly after a state Senate session, I said that no one should be texting while driving. However the issue is not a texting ban. Such a law is unnecessary in Wisconsin. The issue is inattentive driving.

Wisconsin statutes currently allow police to cite for inattentive driving, and that includes use of a cell phone. The law clearly states, “No person while driving a motor vehicle shall be so engaged or occupied as to interfere with the safe driving of such vehicle.” Law enforcement currently has the authority to cite drivers that are texting, using a cell phone, or participating in any other behaviors that are dangerous to other drivers. 

It is never safe to text while driving. The bill approved by the state Senate October 20, 2009, does not change current law about inattentive driving, and thus does not change current law about texting penalties. The fine for inattentive driving is not less than $20 nor more than $400. Under the texting bill, the fine remains the same as the fine for inattentive driving, not less than $20 nor more than $400. The public may believe the bill imposes a special severe penalty for texting, it does not. 

The bill was approved with an amendment to exempt ham radio operators. I voted for the amendment to exempt ham radio operators; however, is an accident caused by an inattentive ham radio operator any different than an accident caused by any other inattentive driver? 

The Legislature could create a special fine for texting while driving, maybe a $2,000 fine or some such.  The Legislature could define certain inattentive driving behaviors and establish fines.  The legislature must determine a value system for each of the behaviors on a laundry list of inattentive driving behaviors.  How much for texting?  How much for reading a map?  How much for eating a hamburger?   How much for reaching for an object?  How much for settling children's disputes?  The list is exhaustive. 

However, with the way the Wisconsin Legislature legislates, the breadth and depth of our law books, the extensive authority Wisconsin government has taken to think for people, and the lack of the current legislature's interest in smaller government, less taxes, and efforts to rebuild the economy, developing a more extensive inattentive driving law would be an excellent example of pure busy work.  Then, I submit with tongue firmly implanted in cheek that law enforcement could study the Legislature's work product and have an excellent source of guidance as they perform their job.  

Law enforcement currently has the authority to act on drivers that are texting, using a cell phone, or participating in any other behaviors that are dangerous to other drivers. Bad driving behaviors are already illegal under existing inattentive driving law. The question is, which behaviors are more dangerous than other behaviors.  

According to a recent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety report, many drivers still use their hand-held phones, even after they are banned, and other drivers switch to hands-free phones.  The crash risk is about the same, regardless of phone type. It is unknown whether bans reduce crashes, and police enforceability is a problem because it is difficult to determine whether a driver is sending a text message or talking on a hands-free phone.  

I am also concerned that a texting ban would endanger privacy. How does a law enforcement officer know what is going on inside a car? Are officers going to confiscate phones? What happens to the contents on the phones?  Proposed legislation to ban texting may sound and feel good. However, it fails to strengthen existing law regarding inattentive driving. The jury is still out about whether such bans are effective in reducing crashes. Driving inattentively is a real safety issue for everyone on the road, and I encourage motorists to contact law enforcement about individuals they may observe.

The texting ban legislation approved by the state Senate is now at the state Assembly.

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