- Associated Press - Sunday, March 27, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Wisconsin is gradually taking steps to regulate cellphone use while driving, but an all-out ban is still a year or more away in the state Legislature.

This month, legislators approved a bill imposing a $20 to $40 fine for drivers talking on handheld cellphones in construction zones, with the fine rising to $50 to $100 for subsequent offenses within a year. Gov. Scott Walker’s office said he plans to sign the legislation.

But the Republican-controlled Legislature ignored a Democratic proposal for a broader ban, leaving it to die as the session wrapped up this month.

Marshfield Republican Rep. John Spiros, a lead sponsor on the construction zone bill, believes the state will eventually move toward an outright ban.

“When it comes down to it, safety really is the key to this whole thing,” Spiros said.

Every day in the U.S., crashes involving distracted drivers kill about eight people and injure more than 1,100, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wisconsin and 45 other states currently prohibit texting while driving, but calling-while-driving bans have been slower to catch on, with only 14 states requiring that drivers talk on hands-free phones.

“Really, basically, it’s just trying to use technology to improve driver safety,” said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, who introduced a bill for fining drivers who use hand-held cellphones regardless of being in construction zones.

A few Republicans have told Barca they could see merit to his broader bill, but the transportation committee didn’t even hold a hearing on it.

“It sends a strong signal that they’re just not willing to entertain this,” Barca said.

Transportation committee chair Rep. Keith Ripp, R-Lodi, didn’t return a call for comment on why the bill never got a public hearing.

Some legislators favor fewer restrictions and want to leave it up to individual rights, said Spiros, the vice-chairman of the transportation committee. For him, it’s about safety. He already passed a city-level ban in 2008 during his time on the Marshfield City Council. Waupaca County, Wisconsin Rapids, Wausau and Rhinelander also have local ordinances regulating cellphone use while driving.

Spiros said he would like to hear from more constituents about the before moving forward on the state level.

Eventually, Barca said, he thinks cellphone bans will be commonplace, like texting-while-driving bans, but it may take a while.

“Old habits die hard, unfortunately,” Barca said.

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Follow Bryna Godar on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bgodar

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