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Originally published Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 2:17 PM

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Wisconsin lawmakers ban texting while driving

Wisconsin could become the 20th state to outlaw texting while driving for all motorists under a bill the Legislature approved Tuesday.

Associated Press Writer

MADISON, Wis. —

Wisconsin could become the 20th state to outlaw texting while driving for all motorists under a bill the Legislature approved Tuesday.

Gov. Jim Doyle has said he will sign the legislation that passed the Senate in October and cleared the Assembly on a bipartisan 89-6 vote Tuesday. Because the Assembly bill varies slightly from the Senate version, another vote will be required before it heads to Doyle for his consideration.

The biggest difference is in penalties. Both bills carry a fine of up to $400 for a first offense. But the Assembly version would increase that fine to up to $800 for a second offense, while the Senate version would not.

The vast majority of those who will be ticketed are teenagers who can't afford $800 tickets, said Rep. Mike Huebsch, R-West Salem.

"Let's make sure the penalty is not onerous," Huebsch said.

He argued for lowering the penalties to no more than $400, but the bill's sponsor successfully argued for keeping the higher penalties. Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said texting while driving is more dangerous than other offenses that would be fall under an inattentive driving ban that has lower fees.

"This is as serious as drunk driving," Barca said. "People are killed by people texting messages."

Nearly 6,000 people were killed and a half-million were injured in vehicle crashes in 2008 connected to driver distraction, including texting, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

More and more states have moved toward banning texting while driving, which is seen as a major distraction and safety hazard.

The first laws banning text messaging while driving passed in 2007 and now 19 states ban it for all drivers.

Nine states prohibit texting by young drivers, and school bus drivers in Texas are barred from texting.

Six states ban all cell phone use, whether for talking or texting. Bills to ban cell phone use while driving in Wisconsin have been introduced but not yet taken up by the Legislature.

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Wisconsin's texting ban would prohibit drivers from using a text message device such as a cell phone, I-Phone, or Blackberry. Emergency responders, as well as licensed amateur radio operators and those texting to report an emergency, would be exempt.

Some lawmakers have questioned the need for a specific texting ban, arguing it's already covered under a law prohibiting disorderly driving and it would be difficult to enforce. But backers said passing a ban would send a message to the public that texting is unsafe.

The ban would take effect seven months after the governor signs it.

Banning texting while driving has wide support including from the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association, which represents some wireless networks in the state, AAA Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Insurance Alliance and a variety of law enforcement groups representing police chiefs, sheriffs and others.

No one registered in opposition to the bill.

A bill in Congress being pushed by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and other Democrats would require states to ban texting or e-mailing while operating a moving vehicle - or lose 25 percent of their annual federal highway funding.

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