New law aims to reduce distracted driving; critics are skeptical
By Monique Garcia, Chicago Tribune reporter 10:35 a.m. CST, December 28, 2013
A driver who zooms down the road with one hand on the wheel and the other propping a cellphone against an ear soon could find that choice a costly one — a new state law taking effect Wednesday bans the use of hand-held devices while driving in Illinois.
Motorists still can chat and drive, but only if they use hands-free technology such as a Bluetooth device, earpiece, headset or speakerphone. Otherwise, they’ll need to put it in park or face fines that start at $75. A handful of towns, including Park Ridge, will issue warnings for the first few weeks of the year, but state police say they’ll offer no such grace period.
“It’s a change in behavior that we are all going to have to get used to,” said state Sen. John Mulroe, a Chicago Democrat who sponsored the measure. “But it wasn’t too long ago that we didn’t even have cellphones, so this might actually make your life a little more enjoyable. Hang up, and enjoy the ride.”
It’s the latest driving safety push in Illinois, where ad campaigns remind drivers to “Click It or Ticket” and to “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over.” There’s no catchphrase associated with the cellphone driving ban, but give safety advocates some time.
The change will put Illinois in the ranks of about a dozen other states with similar restrictions. Supporters contend the ban will make streets safer by limiting driver distraction and providing more uniformity to the rules of the road. As it stands, dozens of municipalities, including Chicago, have enacted their own cellphone driving restrictions, creating a complicated patchwork of local laws. The statewide ban eliminates the confusion.
Opponents argue it should be up to motorists to make sure they are driving safely on the roads, not police who will be required to enforce the law. Foes also say there are a wide range of other distractions for drivers and raise concerns about forcing motorists to buy expensive hands-free gadgets.
“The evidence out there that talking on a hands-free phone is less dangerous than putting on your lipstick or eating a cheeseburger or admonishing your kids in the back seat is unclear at best,” said Sen. Dale Righter, a Republican from downstate Mattoon who voted against the bill.
Despite the push to regulate cellphone use on the roads, research is murky as to whether requiring hands-free devices make roads safer. Researchers at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is funded by the insurance industry, have found little difference between drivers who use hand-held cellphones and those who use hands-free devices.
Researchers instead contend that all cellphone use is equally distracting once a conversation starts, noting that accident rates have not changed in other states that have bans on hand-held phones behind the wheel. Nonetheless, supporters argue that Illinois’ new law is a step in the right direction, contending the best course of action will be to eventually ban all cellphone use behind the wheel.
“It doesn’t make driving entirely distraction-free, the best law would be no cellphones at all, but at least this is a start,” said John Kennedy, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. “The distraction is in your head, not just the device.”
It’s already illegal to use hand-held cellphones in school and construction zones, and all cellphone use is banned for drivers under age 18 unless they are making an emergency call. Illinois also prohibits texting while driving. Commercial truck drivers have been required to use hands-free devices for almost a year.
Driving without a hands-free device will be a primary offense, meaning police can pull a driver over and ticket them if they see a motorist with a phone pressed to their ear. The same standard applies to text messaging while driving, and some law enforcement officials say the new cellphone rules will make it easier to catch violators tapping out notes as they drive.
Under the law, first-time offenders would face a $75 fine. That cost rises to $100 for a second violation, $125 for a third and $150 for each subsequent offense. After four violations, the Illinois secretary of state would have the power to suspend a driver’s license.
Drivers still could make calls legally on hand-held phones in the case of an emergency or when stopped in traffic jams if the car is in park or neutral. The law also allows hobbyists to fiddle with their citizens band radios. Police and emergency personnel are exempt from the ban while performing their official duties.
Meanwhile, a separate measure that also takes effect Wednesday increases penalties for drivers who injure or kill others in crashes caused by the use of a cellphone or other electronic device.
Distracted motorists who harm other drivers would face penalties of up to $2,500 in fines and less than a year of jail time if convicted. Distracted drivers involved in fatal accidents could be charged with a Class 4 felony, where a conviction carries fines of up to $25,000 and up to three years of jail time.
In Illinois, almost 6,000 crashes have occurred from 2008 to 2012 in which some form of driver distraction involving a cellphone was cited by police, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. The toll included 30 fatalities, according to the agency.
While the cellphone ban law technically takes effect Jan. 1, a few local police departments say they’ll give drivers two or three weeks to become acquainted with the law before issuing tickets. Park Ridge police Cmdr. Jason Leavitt said the suburb is distributing informational fliers to clear up any confusion and “make sure everyone is on the same page.”
“A lot of times these laws come up and people don’t know about it until they get a ticket and we want to give people time to get educated,” Leavitt said. He added the department is also teaming with schools to educate parents, noting a law passed last year that banned hands-held devices in school zones caused confusion for parents picking up and dropping off children.
Such a grace period is less likely to be found on state highways, however. A state police spokeswoman said troopers are prepared to start issuing tickets for violations on state roads beginning New Year’s Day. Troopers will have discretion to issue a warning depending on the severity of the offense.
Mulroe said he hopes drivers will avoid warning situations altogether and simply follow the law.
“Your hands should be on the wheel and your eyes should be on the road,” Mulroe said. “It’s just common sense.”