There are more than 125,000 car accidents every year in Wisconsin. And most of these are simple distracted driving mistakes that are completely preventable.
That’s why arguably THE most important thing you can do behind the wheel is keep your hands at 10 and 2 and your eyes on the road. Always.
What Is Distracted Driving?
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation defines distracted driving this way: “While texting and driving is a leading cause of distraction behind the wheel, distracted driving is any activity that takes a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving.”
There are three types of distractions:
Manual: anything that causes you to take your hands off the wheel, like eating, smoking, or reaching for an object
Visual: anything that causes you to take your eyes off the road, like looking at a GPS, checking your hair in the review mirror, or looking at kids in the backseat
Cognitive: anything that causes you to take your mind off the task of driving, like having a conversation with a passenger, going over your shopping list in your head, or daydreaming
The most dangerous distractions are those that involve more than one type of distraction. Sending a text message involves all three.
Distracted Driving Statistics in Wisconsin
You don’t have to follow the local news every night to know that distracted driving is a problem, but here are a few statistics that might help you understand just how serious it is in Wisconsin:
In 2015, there were 24,089 car crashes in Wisconsin that were attributed to distracted driving. Of these:
10,615 involved injuries
94 involved fatalities
This was an 8.2% increase over 2014.
Despite laws against it, distracted driving accident rates continue to climb both in Wisconsin and nationwide.
Distracted driving is frequently referred to as “the new drunk driving.”
Does Wisconsin Have Laws against Distracted Driving?
Wisconsin currently prohibits:
Reading, writing, and sending text messages or emails
Drivers with restricted licenses (teens) from all cell phone use, even if in hands-free mode
Drivers may not watch devices providing entertainment through "primary visual means" (i.e. videos)
Drivers from using handheld cell phones in active construction zones
Commercial vehicle drivers from using handheld devices while driving
The state has a general distracted driving law that makes it illegal to be “so engaged or occupied as to interfere with the safe driving of the vehicle.”
On top of that, state legislators are currently drafting a bill that would make the use of handheld devices illegal for all drivers. At the time of this writing, however, this proposed bill is in the very early stages.
Wisconsin compared to the rest of the US on texting and driving restrictions
Currently, every state in the US has a law that prohibits some sort of cell phone usage except Montana and Arizona. But once 2021 rolls around and Arizona's law comes into effect, Montana will be the only state left.
Are There Any Exceptions to the Distracted Driving Laws in Wisconsin?
The following exceptions to Wisconsin’s distracted driving law apply:
Operators of authorized emergency vehicles are exempt from the state’s distracted driving laws.
The use of GPS or other navigational systems is permitted.
The use of a display screen to monitor backseat passengers, or traffic, road, and weather conditions, is permitted.
The use of devices while in hands-free voice-to-text mode is permitted.
Drivers may use their hands only to activate or deactivate a feature or function of the device.
The use of any device whose primary function is transmitting and receiving emergency alert messages related to the operation of the vehicle is permitted.
The use of any accessory that is integrated into the electrical system of a vehicle is permitted.
Licensed amateur radio operators are permitted to engage in 2-way radio communication, provided they observe proper amateur radio operating procedures.
Wisconsin Distracted Driving Laws at a Glance
Is texting while driving legal?
Can you send/receive texts at a red light?
Is handheld device use permitted?
Any special restriction for young drivers?
Is headphone/headset use permitted?
Is It Legal to Eat a Cheeseburger While Driving in Wisconsin?
Yes. And no.
Distracted driving comes in many forms, and eating a cheeseburger can be just as distracting as talking on a cell phone.
So, what happens if a police officer in Wisconsin spots you eating a cheeseburger while driving down the highway? In most cases, nothing. There's no law that says you can't eat while driving in this state. However, there is a law against distracted driving.
Basically, you will want to make sure you aren’t enjoying that cheeseburger too much. If you lose control of your vehicle while eating it or you commit a moving violation such as running a stop sign, you can find yourself looking at an inattentive driving citation. And that's definitely not worth it.
Unless you're really in a hurry, you’re better off eating your Big Mac indoors or in the parking lot.
What's the Difference between Primary and Secondary Enforcement of Distracted Driving Laws?
Primary enforcement of distracted driving laws means the police can pull you over if they see you violating state distracted driving laws.
Secondary enforcement of distracted driving laws means the police can cite you for violating distracted driving laws only if you break another law while doing so.
Wisconsin uses primary enforcement.
This means that even if you're in total control of your vehicle while using your cell phone, a police officer who sees you doing so can pull you over and write up a citation.
However, officers in this state may not “seize, search, view, or require the forfeiture” of your wireless communication device.
What's the Penalty for Distracted Driving in Wisconsin?
If you get a ticket for violating Wisconsin’s distracted driving laws, you can expect:
For a texting offense:a fine of anywhere from $20 to $400, with a possible 4 points added to your driver’s license.
For violating the state’s general distracted driving law: a fine of $173 plus 4 points to your license.
And if you hold an intermediate (restricted) license at the time of your offense, you'll need to wait an additional 6 months to obtain your regular, unrestricted license.
Wisconsin's fines for distracted driving compared to surrounding states
Keep in mind that the price you'll actually pay is likely to be higher than the ticketed amount. This is because you’re likely to have court costs and miscellaneous fees added on. But the costs don’t end there. This brings us to our next topic: insurance.
Does Distracted Driving in Wisconsin Increase Insurance Rates?
Distracted driving citations add points against your driving record, which means your insurance company will know about the infraction. You can expect your insurance rates to go up as a result.
The amount of your rate hike will depend on which insurance company you use and your overall driving history. In Wisconsin, distracted driving citations cause rates to go up an average of $234 a year. So you really have to ask yourself whether that text message is worth it.
And if you have a safe driver discount, you can say goodbye to that. Distracted driving will almost certainly disqualify you from receiving this discount, and this can cause your rate increase to be even more painful.
What If I Drive into Another State?
Distracted driving laws vary by state, and when you cross that state line you are required to follow their laws. Claiming ignorance of the law will not get you out of a citation, so be sure to check on the current laws for any states you may be traveling through before you take your next road trip.
If you drive into Illinois, the use of handheld cell phones is illegal. Does this mean if you're holding a phone to your ear while when you cross the border, you have to end your call immediately? If you want to avoid risking a $75 fine, you sure do.
What Is Wisconsin Doing To Prevent Distracted Driving?
Wisconsin lawmakers are aware of the dangers presented by distracted driving on this state’s roadways. In an effort to create even stronger distracted driving laws, State Assembly member John Spiros is currently crafting legislation that would make handheld cell phone use illegal for all drivers.
It is expected to be introduced in the 2020 legislative session.
In the meantime, the state is investing in campaigns designed to educate the public about the dangers of distracted driving. One such initiative is the “Leave your phone alone until you get home” campaign, which uses a video created by Wisconsin middle school students in a widely distributed public service announcement.
So What Can You Do?
Quite simply, just put the phone away — even if that means in the glove compartment. The fines themselves are definitely not worth it, let alone the more serious consequences to you and others on the road. Let’s all just get where we’re going safely and save the texting until you get home.