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Industry on hold for cell phone bill (UPDATE)

By Paul Snyder

It would cost J.P. Cullen & Sons Inc. about $4,200 to buy headsets for about 120 employees who use cell phones in the field.

“For a company that does the level of business we do, that’s a small price to pay for safety,” said Kevin Hickman, director of business and development for the Janesville-based company.

But it’s a price Cullen and other construction companies have not paid.

Hickman said the company does not have a policy on employee cell phone use while driving, but encourages employees to stop driving when talking or wait until they’ve reached a destination to return a call. Use of personal headsets or hands-free devices, he said, is up to each person.

“We have discussions all the time about it,” Hickman said. “But we’ve had no incidents. I think right now, it’s something of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind situation.

“Without a law saying we have to use hands-free, it might take some story in the news or incident to make us make the change.”

Many state lawmakers this session introduced bills dealing with cell phone use while driving. State Rep. Josh Zepnick, D-Milwaukee, Tuesday added his name to the list by introducing a bill that would require hands-free devices while talking on the phone and driving.

Zepnick could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The bill was referred to the Assembly Committee on Transportation, joining similar cell phone bills on hold before getting a public hearing.

State Rep. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire, introduced one of those bills. His would prevent people younger than 18 from using any cell phones while driving and would require hands-free devices for people older than 18.

“It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when,” said Smith, who said he was using a hands-free device on Wednesday while plowing snow. “Almost every car you buy new now has some kind of hands-free option. This is the direction we’re going.”

But Smith said policing cell phone use will be difficult. He said he has a window-cleaning business in Eau Claire and tells employees not to talk on cell phones while driving his seven company-owned trucks.

“I can’t say for sure whether they do or don’t,” he said.

The construction industry faces the same problem. Verona-based Engineered Construction Inc. has a policy that employees do not use cell phones while driving.

“But I guarantee you every single person — including me — talks on the cell phone while driving,” said William Jackson, vice president of marketing and business development.

Although Engineered and other companies are discussing rolling over to hands-free, he said, lawmakers might be the only people who can make it happen.

“It’s like seat belts,” he said. “When I was a kid I never wore a seat belt, and when they changed that law, I thought it was going to be impossible. Now what’s the first thing you do when you get into the car?

“If there’s a law, it could become second nature.”

That’s a big if, said state Rep. Jeff Stone, R-Greendale.

“I don’t think there’s the desire in the Legislature to deal with bans on talking while driving,” said Stone, a member of the Assembly Committee on Transportation.

“We’ve seen nothing that shows a connection between talking and dramatic increases in accidents,” said Stone, referring to research on motorists’ cell phone use in Wisconsin. “We could use some kind of documentation.”

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute this summer reported that in trucks and heavy vehicles, the risk of a crash or near crash increased 6.7 times while using or reaching for an electronic device.

“The other problem is we have so many bills dealing with this right now,” Stone said. “It ought to be one comprehensive piece of legislation.”

If that bill becomes law, Hickman said, Cullen likely would pay for the headsets.

“I’d like to say within the next year, I could see us doing something like that,” he said. “But there’s no guarantee.”

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