Drivers may have to put down their phones for good under a proposal to ban the use of handheld cell phones while on the road.

Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, and Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, introduced the bill in late January with support from other Democrats to limit the use of cell phones to emergency situations and instead require hands-free devices to make calls.

“It is important for Wisconsin to take the strong step toward ending this unsafe behavior on our roads,” Barca said in a statement. “This is a common-sense public safety proposal that would help keep Wisconsin’s drivers and pedestrians safe.”

Current law prohibits text messaging for all drivers. The law also prohibits the use of both handheld and hands-free cell phones for individuals with a probationary license or instructional permit, Department of Transportation spokesperson Randy Romanski said.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 12 states and the District of Columbia prohibit all drivers from using handheld cell phones.

A 2011 distracted driving report from the association said studies in both Canada and Australia found the use of cell phones increased the risk of a crash by a factor of four. The report also noted a study of OnStar usage, which found a moderately lower risk was associated when talking on hands-free devices.

“We must use technology, such as hands-free options, whenever possible to enhance safety,” Barca said.

Romanski said the DOT has not taken a position on the bill, but law enforcement officers have indicated that it has been difficult to enforce similar measures in the past.

The texting ban is an example of a similar law that can be difficult to enforce, Romanski said. Drivers’ hands may be below an area visible to law enforcement, as they may attempt to hide the fact that they are texting.

“With this law, it’s a little bit more visible if there’s a restriction on a handheld device,” he said.

In an email to The Badger Herald, Romanski said the penalties for previous restrictions are nearly $190 for texting while driving, and $160 for using a phone while driving with a probationary or instructional permit.

The proposed ban would institute a fine ranging from $20 to $400 for anyone using a handheld cell phone while driving.

[Photo by Flickr user Lord Jim]