Wisconsin could become the 16th state to ban teenagers from using cell phones while driving, if legislators pass a bill reintroduced by state Rep. Jerry Petrowski, R- Marathon.

The bill was proposed too late to pass in 2003 and failed again in 2005 because fiscal policy prevented the Department of Transportation from printing new mandatory driver manuals.

The cell phone ban would prohibit both talking and text messaging while driving — except for in emergency situations.

Pam Moen, public affairs director for American Automobile Association Wisconsin, said teens have too many distractions available to them in the car and the cell phone ban is a good idea to improve teen driver safety.

“Cell phone use and text messaging [are] such a prominent part of many people’s lives, yet study after study has shown that teen[s] … are so much safer if they refrain from using those devices while driving,” Moen said.

The cell phone rule would be added to an existing set of rules for new Wisconsin drivers as part of the Graduated Drivers License. The GDL program began in February 2000 to teach new drivers good driving habits.

“[A GDL] takes away some distractions from new drivers who are still learning,” said Jason Bauknecht, a research assistant for Petrowski.

Currently, new drivers are limited on the number of passengers allowed in a vehicle and are not allowed to drive late at night.

Dennis Hughes, chief of safety programs for the Department of Transportation, said the GDL program has successfully reduced the number of teen driving accidents.

“We did an analysis after the first three years of GDL, and 16-year-olds were 15 percent less likely to be in a crash and 18 percent less likely to be in a fatal crash compared to before the GDL,” Hughes said.

The Department of Transportation, Hughes said, supports the bill as well as the existing GDL program and thinks it will help keep all Wisconsin drivers safe.

“The idea is to protect the public, and the worst drivers on the road are teenagers because they’re the newest,” Hughes said.

Bauknecht said nobody testified against the ban in public hearings because, as part of the GDL, the ban would prepare teens for a lifetime of safe driving.

“Our intent is just to provide good driving habits,” Bauknecht said. “Driving schools said [teens] are less likely to use cell phones once the habit is instilled.”

Moen said the AAA new driver education programs teach teens to refrain from using a cell phone while driving, and strongly supports the recommendation to enhance the GDL law.

Moen also said a survey of 1,000 teens across the country last month resulted in 51 percent saying they talk and drive.

“That study alone proves something needs to be done to educate young drivers about acceptable (driving) behavior,” Moen said.