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Wausau, surrounding communities discuss cellphone ban for drivers


WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAU) -- Wausau city leaders hosted law enforcement and government officials from nearby communities Thursday to discuss a possible area-wide ban on driving while talking on cellphones. Alderman Romey Wagner says it’s a safety issue that has been brought to him several times. “I brought this forward six or seven months ago as constituents came to me about it, and I felt it would be very difficult for just the city of Wausau police department to have to address this if we passed the ordinance. Bringing the whole group together making it regional or area-wide, I feel is one of the more important things to do, and it seems like we’ve met everyone’s expectations.”

Tara Alfonso works with the Wausau City Attorney’s office. She drafted two alternates for the possible ordinance, and they were distributed to Weston, Rib Mountain, Kronenwetter, Rothschild, Schofield, and some of the neighboring townships. She says the intent is to keep drivers focussed on driving while giving law enforcement a reasonable way to enforce the ordinance, if passed. “If you have a device and you’re not touching it or operating or manipulating it, that device would be OK because it’s not interfering with attention on the road.”

Alfonso says the two draft ordinances both allow for use of smart phones and GPS units with a clear and simple rule. “The exception in both alternates of the ordinance exempts from a prohibition voice-operated or hands-free devices if the motor vehicle operator is not using his hands to operate them at that time.”

Everest Metro Police Department Chief Wally Sparks recommended a change in the language of the proposed ordinance to simply prohibit handling devices and manipulating the devices while the vehicle is moving. “For us to be able to enforce this one, the presumption is in there that if they have a hand-held device within the vicinity of their ear, which is typical of cellphone use, that’s a violation, but GPS devices are really, really common. Most people have them. If they don’t have the actual GPS aftermarket devices, then they use a lot of their smart phones for this, so incorporating the physical manipulation of those devices (into the ordinance language) I think is an important aspect.”

On the state level, Senator Jerry Petrowski is working on a statewide cellphone ban, but it only applies to construction zones. He says with 76 traffic fatalities in work zones, it’s important to keep drivers focussed on safe driving first. “When you have those amount of fatalities, having distractions when drivers are going through, is important that we curb that, and I believe a hands-free cellphone would be better, and basically the bill restricts hand-held cellphones in work zones.”

Petrowski says there is no statewide cellphone ban outside of the work zone bill being considered by the Legislature, but wouldn’t rule it out in the future.