PRESS EDITORIAL: A phone in hand, a menace on the road

Walkers and runners who frequent roads and streets without sidewalks can tell stories about distracted drivers.

These pedestrians traveling on the edge of the road encounter a fair number of drivers who move their vehicles over to give a wide berth when traffic permits; friendly waves are frequently exchanged. Most other motor vehicle operators stick to their side of the center line, often because of oncoming traffic, but are careful to pass walkers and runners safely.

Then there is that third class of driver, a small but dangerous group whose vehicles appear from a distance to take dead aim at those walking and running on the side of the road. They keep coming, and coming, seemingly oblivious to the presence of the human beings in their sights. If these encounters don’t end in injury or worse, it is only because the potential victims jump out of the way or the drivers, suddenly conscious of their surroundings, swerve back to the traffic lane at the last second.

Odds are there is a cellphone at the ears or in the hands of the people behind the wheels of these unguided missiles. They are distracted drivers, the sober but lethal equivalent of drunken drivers.

Bicycle riders can tell similar, but even more frightening, stories—moving with vehicular traffic, they often don’t see the menace coming.

After decades of declining traffic deaths, road fatalities in the U.S. have increased in recent years—in motor vehicle crashes and at an even higher rate in collisions of cars and trucks with pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcycle riders. Many safety analysts point to distracted-by-cellphone driving as the cause.

A study commissioned by insurance companies found that 88% of drivers have used a cellphone for speaking or texting while driving.

By one calculation, taking eyes off the road for a mere four seconds while traveling at 55 mph is like driving blindfolded for the length of a football field.

Nineteen states, including most recently Illinois and Minnesota, have reacted to the distracted-driving threat by passing “hands-free” laws that prohibit holding a cellphone or similar electronic devices while driving. Wisconsin should join them.

Our state already acknowledges the danger with laws that ban cellphone use by newly licensed young drivers and by all drivers while in construction zones, and texting while driving is illegal for all drivers.

According to the state Department of Transportation, distracted driving was the cause of 46,809 crashes in Wisconsin last year, with more than 10,000 injuries and 89 deaths. Even allowing for exaggeration—determining the cause of crashes is often an educated guess by authorities—the numbers are large enough to point to a serious problem.

Though it has been said that distracted driving is as deadly a road hazard as the drunken driving plague, laws against it are more difficult to enforce. Illegal cellphone use, after all, is not detectable by Breathalyzer. And a hands-free law won’t relieve cellphone-abstaining drivers and bike and motorcycle riders from being vigilant or pedestrians from being ready to jump for their lives.             

Nevertheless, Wisconsin needs a hands-free law to make it perfectly clear that using a hand-held cellphone while driving is irresponsible, unacceptable, life-threatening conduct. 

Something on the order of Illinois’ hands-free penalties—$75 to $150 fines and points leading to license revocation—would be appropriate here.

Confiscation of the cellphones of offenders would be tempting, but not practical. Depriving citizens of a necessity of life would be cruel and unusual punishment.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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