New Wisconsin law bans cellphone use while driving near roadside emergencies, adds other safety rules

By Alan Hovorka

STEVENS POINT – A new law providing more protections to police, fire and EMS crews responding to emergencies on roadways has its roots in Amherst. 

Gov. Tony Evers signed a new law Monday at the Amherst Fire District that provides a specific definition for “emergency or roadside response area," introduces new fines and bans cellphone use when driving near active emergency vehicles on the road.

The bill defines emergency response areas as within 500 feet of an emergency vehicle, either a vehicle with a visible signal or a tow truck with flashing red lights. 

State Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, wrote the legislation after Amherst's assistant fire chief, Brian Swan, contacted her in August 2018 following a crash into a fire truck in Waupaca. Swan and Amherst Fire Chief Victor Voss were the driving forces behind the bill, Shankland said.

“Over the years, we have heard repeatedly from firefighters that they would rather run into a burning building than respond to an incident on the highway," the lawmaker said in a news release. "They have gear to protect them from the fire; they have no gear to help them if a car hits them going 75 miles per hour."

The law also creates a new crime and penalty for traffic violations that cause bodily harm in zones with active emergency responders. Such violations involving bodily harm include up to nine months of imprisonment and fines up to $10,000, according to the law's revised text. The new law's ban on cellphone use near active emergency responders on the road mirrors existing penalties for speeding, cellphone use and other infractions in a construction zone.