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OUR VIEW: Put that cellphone away, new drivers

Parents of high-school age students might want to take note.

Starting on Nov. 1, Wisconsin Act 164 went into effect banning first-time drivers from driving while using a cellphone. The law was passed last spring.

Existing state law already bans cellphone texting for all Wisconsin drivers, but this new law bans new drivers from talking on cell phones.

National studies show cellphone use is a big distraction for drivers and a contributing factor in many crashes, including fatal ones. The cellphone ban applies to young drivers who get an instructional permit and then move on to a nine-month, graduated license that carries certain driving restrictions.

Besides first-time teenage drivers, cellphone bans also apply to drivers of any age who hold a Wisconsin probationary license:

--New state residents under the age of 21;

--New state residents with fewer than three years of driving experience;

--New state residents who give up a license that is expired for more than six months;

--Drivers licensed in other countries; and

--Those with suspended or revoked instructional permits.

Probationary licenses last for two years.

Talking on a phone while driving is considered a moving violation (inattentive driving) for persons with a learner's permit or probationary or graduated driver license (GDL).

According to Jim Miller, chief examiner in the Department of Transportation's Technical and Training Section, there are consequences beyond fines. Use of a cell phone on a probationary license will result in a four-point inattentive driving ticket and a fine.

If the ticket is received while the probationary driver is on GDL restrictions and it is the only ticket he has received, his GDL restrictions will be extended six months.

If the driver is operating on an instruction permit, he will need to wait six months from the date of violation to be eligible for a probationary license. If this is a second or subsequent ticket on a probationary license, the points double.

Teens with GDLs who get a ticket for inattentive driving go back to driving on a permit for the next six months and their GDL is extended for another nine months.

Forfeitures, or fines, will range from $20-$40 for a first offense, and $50-$100 subsequent offenses.

The actual size of the fines will be higher -- depending on the county or municipality where you live -- once court and other local fees are tacked on.

The new law gives one exception for probationary licensed drivers to use a cellphone: When calling to report an emergency.

Not all police officers are going to be on the street looking for drivers talking on cell phones. The law creates its own set of problems for law enforcement as it is sometimes unclear who may have a probationary license. It is more likely that the situation will come up during stops as a secondary offense -- that is, a driver will be stopped for some another violation and the cellphone becomes part of the situation.

However, in smaller towns, officers may often know from past contacts that a driver has a probationary license and is driving while using a cellphone. Officers certainly have the right to stop a driver if they suspect the law is being violated. The message should be: don't break the law!

The bottom line, of course, it is all about safety. Parents, probationary drivers, and others, should be reminded that driving and talking on cell is not safe -- regardless of the letter of the law. Even experienced drivers are discovering that it is difficult to talk on a cellphone and concentrate on the road. The day may come when none of us will have the privilege of talking on a phone and driving at the same time.

For now, obey the law and think about the intent: safety!