Bills of Note: Device Use While Driving

Last week, the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety held a public hearing on a bill that would prohibit using electronic devices while driving. The bill expands existing state law prohibiting texting and emailing while driving to include entering, transmitting, or accessing data via an “interactive electronic device.” These infractions would be categorized under “inattentive driving.” Exceptions to device usage include device use for reporting an emergency, verbal communication, navigation, and electronics integrated into the vehicle.

The committee hearing on the bill (AB 463/SB 380), authored by Rep. Ron Tusler (R-Harrison) and Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), took place on Sept. 21. At the hearing, Tusler said the bill’s expansion of distracted driving prohibitions and increased penalties would discourage the dangerous practice of cell phone use while driving and clarify that texting is considered negligent driving. Tusler said the exceptions give the bill some flexibility and mentioned the possibility of adding another exception for the use of electronic devices for medical needs.

Also testifying in favor of the bill was Rep. Shannon Zimmerman (R-River Falls), Wisconsin Association for Justice, Milwaukee Police Association, Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association, and Wisconsin Bicycle Federation. Also registered in favor of the bill are Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association and Wisconsin EMS Association.

Throughout the hearing, lawmakers questioned the scope of the bill, asking, for example, whether the bill would apply to law enforcement, what would happen if a Bluetooth device stopped working mid-call, and if leaving apps open on your phone would count as “transmitting data.”

No groups testified against the bill, but Bob Fassbender testified on behalf of Wisconsin Civil Justice Council (WCJC) for information only. Fassbender agreed that the current law is too narrow to address the wide range of distractive driving while engaging electronic devices. But as drafted, according to Fassbender, the bill is overly broad and will create unintended and mostly unavoidable violations because too many non-exempt devices will be transmitting or accessing data while driving. Also, these violations will trigger the legal concept of negligence per se, making any defense an uphill battle at best.