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Editorial

State Rep. Shannon Zimmerman supports a hands-free future for Wisconsin

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May 7, 2019

Decisions made while driving could quickly become a matter of life or death. According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, every 22 minutes there is a distracted driving crash occurring in the state.

Minnesota, along with 17 other states have taken the initiative to enact a hands-free cell phone law in an attempt to lessen distractions on the road. In Minnesota, the current penalty is a petty misdemeanor and increasing fines for repeat violations.  

This type of law, as explained by Wisconsin Representative Shannon Zimmerman, would allow drivers access to their phones to answer a call or use a GPS, but they are then expected to use a headset or a bluetooth system. “I do a ton of calls while driving,” Zimmerman said. “I’m that goofball that has a headset on. It’s wireless, and it works, it’s great! I can hold hands or do whatever I need to do. ”

Distracted driving isn’t just using a phone while driving. “Distracted driving is a very broad term,” Zimmerman states. “That could be a radio. It could be smoking a cigarette. It could be you on the phone. We’re just tightening it to be a little more specific.”

There are laws currently in place in Wisconsin regarding distracted driving, however Wisconsin has yet to follow in Minnesota’s footsteps when comes to being hands-free. Zimmerman believes due to public support and technology advancements over the last few years, Wisconsin soon will also be under the hands-free law.

“We’re at that stage right now in Wisconsin where the concept or the drafts from legislation are being now loosey produced, and it will ultimately be a bill that will be circulated to garner support. It’s just a matter of when,” Zimmerman stated.

Zimmerman continued. “In today’s climate the winds of change are there and there’s a greater receptivity to it now in the state of Wisconsin due to – sadly and tragically – the deaths that have resulted.”

This initiative is close to Zimmerman’s heart. In October of 2014, his 38-year-old cousin was hit and killed by a distracted driver. “It was absolutely heartbreaking,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman’s family became strong proponents of the law after the incident. “There’s a lot of local stories in our own backyard where people’s lives have been affected by this. I just feel like we’re at the point where bills like this will pass,” he said.

Though the hand-free law would be a step in the right direction, more could be done. The best case scenario would be drivers avoiding phone use while operating a vehicle, however this seems like an unlikely, overly-optimistic fix. “Human beings gravitate to ease,” said Zimmerman.

Research from the National Safety Council found that there were no major safety benefits to driving hands-free, though it is possible that the law will serve as a way to remind drivers to exercise profuse caution.  

To supplement this bill, Zimmerman suggested cooperation with automobile manufacturers to make vehicles better equipped for hands-free phone usage. Cell phone manufacturers could also implement technology to make driving safer. Phone applications that utilize “driving mode” could be further explored and encouraged, especially among young drivers. “Help us help ourselves here,” Zimmerman requests of these companies. “And save more lives.”

Zimmerman elaborated. “I think the focus right now should just be with [the hands-free law]. We know we’ve got a clear issue with phones. In today’s era, phones are very valuable to us,” he said. “Being able to communicate and conduct business while you’re driving, or connect with your family or in an emergency is important. We just to have to have the manner in which we do it minimize and reduce risk as much as humanly possible.”

Drivers are encouraged to exercise caution at all times while driving, and should not wait for a law enactment to analyze their potentially dangerous habits on the road.