- Associated Press - Monday, September 16, 2019

Wisconsin State Journal, Sept. 25

Hands-free driving will save lives

Wisconsin already bans beginning drivers from using cellphones behind the wheel.

Now a worthy proposal by Rep. John Spiros, R-Marshfield, would similarly discourage adult drivers from distracting themselves with wireless devices.

The bill deserves strong bipartisan support.

The new restriction won’t be easy to enforce, nor will it magically stop every driver from handling their cellphones when they should be watching the road. But it will serve as a deterrent, encouraging more people to comply. That’s what happened after the state required motorists to wear seat belts: More people put them on, and today nearly 90 percent of all drivers in Wisconsin use the life-saving straps.

The “hands-free” driving bill that Spiros began circulating for cosponsors Tuesday at the statehouse in Madison is similar to a Minnesota law championed by Tom Goeltz, who lives in Hudson, about 250 miles northwest of Madison in St. Croix County. Goeltz lost his pregnant daughter three years ago when a driver believed to be distracted by his phone crashed into his daughter’s car in Stillwater, Minnesota.

Now Goeltz is advocating for Spiros’ law here.

If passed, the law would be a considerable step up from the state’s current ban on texting while driving.

“We need to get this done because it’s going to save some lives here in Wisconsin,” Goeltz told The Associated Press. “We’ll never know who they are, but we’ll see it in the statistics at the end of the year.”

He’s right.

Twelve of the 15 states with hands-free laws experienced a decline in fatalities within two years of passage, the AP reported. And in six states, the fatalities dropped by more than 20%.

Our State Journal editorial board endorsed legislation prohibiting mostly teen drivers from using cellphones in 2012. At the same time, we encouraged motorists of all ages to pay better attention to the road. Our editorial board also endorsed a ban on texting, which became law.

The allure of cellphones has only grown since then, with streaming video, games, and myriad apps. That provides plenty of reason for the Legislature to revisit and strengthen state rules.

Spiros’ bill would prohibit all drivers from holding their cellphones to talk or type, except in emergencies. And the only thing drivers with regular licenses could do with their phones is touch them once for hands-free use. So a driver, for example, could still use a mapping app for directions. But beginning drivers with probationary licenses or instructional permits would still be forbidden from using even hands-free functions.

The maximum penalty would be $50 for a first offense, $100 for a second offense, and $150 for third or subsequent violations.

Cellphones have become so ubiquitous and diverting that further limits on drivers make good sense.


Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, Sept. 26

Tornadoes too common an occurrence

Western Wisconsin residents experienced Tuesday night a weather phenomenon that’s unfortunately not a rarity in the United States.

A devastating tornado touched down in Elk Mound and traveled through the town of Wheaton before ending west of Chippewa Falls. No lives appear to have been lost, but there were injuries and extensive property damage.

Dan Horel, his girlfriend, Justina Semerad, and his two children made it to their basement as the twister struck. When it ended, Horel emerged to find only a cement basement where there once had been a home.

“I sat up on my knees,” Horel told Leader-Telegram reporter Chris Vetter, “and the house was gone.”

“It sounded like a freight train,” fellow Wheaton resident Cindy Brace told Vetter. “It was solid noise and wind. It was scary. I’ve never experienced anything like it.”

They’re stories that are all too familiar in our nation, which averaged 1,125 tornadoes annually from 2016 through last year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Direct deaths linked to those storms averaged 21 over that time period, but we’re already at 38 in 2019.

“Tornado Valley” in the south-central part of the nation and Florida have a disproportionate number of the damaging storms. Overall, the U.S. has roughly four times as many tornadoes each year as the rest of the world combined.

Business Insider reports that winds from the Gulf of Mexico and the Rocky Mountains merge to create ideal conditions for tornadoes in mid-America.

“To make a tornado, you need just the right mix of ingredients: Warm, humid air near the ground. Cold air higher up in the atmosphere. And wind that overlaps while moving at different speeds or directions,” reads the story. “Believe it or not, few places on Earth check all of these boxes. And none compares to the Great Plains of the United States - AKA, Tornado Alley.”

For those forced to rebuild, the Wisconsin Better Business Bureau shared advice for dealing with contractors in an emergency that included: beware of “fly-by-night” contractors or “storm chasers” who come into the area after a storm; check out the company with the BBB at 800-273-1002 or BBB.org; check references; and never pay in full before the work is completed.

“It’s a sad fact that ‘man-made’ disasters typically follow natural disasters,” said Jim Temmer, CEO and president of the BBB in Wisconsin. “In your haste to do repairs, don’t forget to research companies before you hire them.”

Those who talked with Vetter were quick to thank neighbors, volunteers and law enforcement in the aftermath of the tornado.

“My thoughts and prayers are with those who were affected by last night’s storms,” read a statement from state Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie. “I am relieved to hear that there were no immediate reports of serious injuries or worse, but … there will be a long road to recovery for some.”

Wheaton resident Ashley Edin shared that sentiment with Vetter: “It’s devastation. But my first thought is how blessed we are that everyone is safe.”


The Journal Times of Racine, Sept. 25

Pump the brakes on red-light cameras

As much as we like to see bipartisanship in our often politically fractured state Legislature, the hairs on our neck went up a bit when we read about the joint sponsorship by Republicans and Democrats on a bill to test the waters for red-light cameras and automatic traffic enforcement.

Currently, Wisconsin is one of more than a dozen states that bans the automated camera systems that monitor roads and intersections and automatically enforce speed limit and red-light violations at signaled intersections by sending vehicle owners citations in the mail.

But legislation backed by three state senators and 19 representatives proposes to allow a five-year test of the controversial automated speed enforcement system (ASES) in the City of Milwaukee.

The test would likely involve about 40 cameras on poles at high-risk intersections and mobile speed traps that would ticket drivers going more than 20 mph over the posted speed limit, according to earlier news reports.

The legislative sponsors argue the bill is needed to promote road safety. “Excessive speeding, red light running and disregarded traffic rules has created unsafe roads throughout our city,” the sponsors wrote in a joint statement, “As a community, we deserve to feel safe on our roads.”

Yeah, who could be against road safety?

Well, for starters, there are those who argue municipalities just use the automated systems as a revenue generator. In Chicago, for instance, an ASES system has plumped the coffers of the city by more than $600 million in red light fines since it was implemented in 2004. It has also resulted in formation of a citizens group to abolish the camera system in the city and a $40 million class action lawsuit over unfair ticket notices that is in the process of being settled.

Similar situations and public objections have resulted in some cities abandoning the camera ticketing and, in fact, the number of cities using automated ticketing has dropped from 540 municipalities to 421 in the past seven years.

Perhaps the Milwaukee “test,” if given approval and enacted by the city, would provide good data on the impact on accident rates. Right now that data is all over the boards.

The Centers for Disease Control says automated enforcement can cut speeding by 1% to 15% and that crashes decline by 8% percent to 49%.

But other studies - such as one by the Virginia Department of Transportation in 2005 - have shown that the number of right angle crashes declined, but the number of rear-end crashes went up, as did the overall number of crashes at intersections. A study in Winnipeg, Canada found that crashes increased significantly after the deployment of red light cameras.

That’s of course to be expected, since we know that some drivers will slam on the brakes when the light turns yellow rather risk getting a camera-generated ticked for running the red. And pity you if you’re in Car No. 2.

Other public protests over ASES systems have focused on the red light or speeding tickets being issued to the owner of a car - even if they were not behind the wheel when the infraction occurred. That practice has been upheld by U.S. Circuit Appeals Courts.

And, yes, the proposed Milwaukee bill has just such a provision, saying “it is not a defense to a violation of this section that the owner was not operating the vehicle at the time of the violation.”

There are exceptions, of course. If your car was stolen and you report it within seven business days of the violation, it will be forgiven. Or, if the owner of the car provides a traffic officer with the name and address of the person who was operating the vehicle at the time of the violation and that person admits it, they will be charged, instead. In some states this is known as a “snitch ticket”.

These are some of the muddy waters the Milwaukee “test” is wading into with automatic speeding and red light enforcement ticketing.

Make no mistake about it, if the five-year Milwaukee “test” is deemed to be successful, it will be coming to a stoplight and roadway near you very soon. This bill deserves a very big yellow light.

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