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New law bans cell phone use for beginning drivers

Keep your eyes on the road, teen drivers, or prepare to be fined. Starting Nov. 1, the state is tightening up its traffic laws by banning any person who holds a probationary license or an instruction permit from driving any motor vehicle while using a cellular or other wireless telephone except to report an emergency.

While teens are most affected, the prohibition against cell phone use affects any driver with an instruction permit or probationary license, regardless of age.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT), besides teen drivers, others with probationary licenses include drivers licensed in other countries, people with suspended or revoked instruction permits or probationary licenses, new state residents who have fewer than three years of driving experience, new state residents younger than 21 and new state residents who surrender a license that has been expired for more than six months.

The fine for violating the new provision is $20 to $40 for a first offense and $50 to $100 for a subsequent offense within a year.

"We hope that the new law will deter teenagers and other inexperienced drivers from using their cell phone while behind the wheel, which can be a dangerous distraction," said Wisconsin State Patrol Maj. Sandra Huxtable, director of the DOT Bureau of Transportation Safety. "In a national study, 43 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds said they have talked on a cell phone while driving, and 40 percent of teens up to age 17 said they have been in a car when the driver used a cell phone in a way that put themselves or others in danger."

"Distracted driving is a problem even for experienced drivers," Huxtable noted. "But it often is even more hazardous for teen drivers who are not experienced. Traffic crashes kill more teenagers in Wisconsin and the rest of the nation than any other cause of death. And distracted driving is a factor in many of these crashes."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 11 percent of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes were distracted at the time of the crash. This age group has the largest proportion of drivers who were distracted.

Village of Mukwonago Police Chief Kevin Schmidt said he is in favor of the law, but it doesn't go far enough. "I think it should be expanded to everyone," he said, adding that an exception could be made for drivers using hands-free technology. Schmidt argued that pushing buttons to dial is no different than texting. He encourages anyone who must make a call or send a text to pull over before doing so.

Village of Summit Police Chief Jim Race said that, in terms of banning people from using their phone in the car, "I think they should do it for everybody, not just people with temporary driver's license." He added that he sees people texting and talking while driving all the time. "It's truly amazing we don't have more accidents because of it," he said.

The major problem with the law is that "it's going to be a very difficult law to enforce," Race said. It will be hard to determine who is looking down because they're on their phone, or for another reason, he explained. It will also be hard for police to determine just by appearances whether a driver has a temporary or regular license. Though there are challenges with the law, "hopefully it's going to keep the younger people's minds on the road, not their phones." Race also hopes that driver's education will stress the importance of not using your phone while driving.

Hartland Police Chief Robert Rosch said the challenge with cell phones, regardless of a person's age, "is they can cause you to be distracted while driving." He explained that while in the car, "we try to encourage everybody, regardless of age and driving experience, to concentrate on driving the car, not on any other task."

While there isn't a great number of accidents due to cell phone use in Hartland, Rosch said that when they do have accidents, officers try to determine what drivers were doing just before the accident to establish whether they were distracted. He said it's not uncommon for people to be asked if they were on their cell phone before the accident. Most times police won't go as far as checking a person's phone history at the time of an accident. Police will check those records, however, if an accident is fatal, and the use of a cell phone could become a criminal offense.

Rosch advises drivers to "be smart and pay attention," and added that the old warning to drive defensively still holds true.

Capt. Ron Oremus of the City of Waukesha Police Department said, "The law makes sense from the perspective that new drivers already have enough to learn." But he, too, predicted that enforcement of the law will be difficult. "It's hard to see whether someone has a phone in their hand or not," he said. The Police Department might get calls reporting a person texting while driving, but by the time the officer responds, it's impossible to prove they were on the phone. Additionally, people tend to hide their phones when they see an officer. Since the texting law took effect in 2011, Oremus said, they have issued just one citation for the offense,

What police are more likely to enforce are what Oremus calls the "symptoms" of driving while on your phone, including weaving. In those instances, people are likely to be cited for inattentive driving.

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