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updated: 5/16/2011 10:05 AM

Local police struggle to stop distracted driving

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  • Buffalo Grove police sometimes pose as solicitors to catch people breaking laws aimed at preventing distracted driving.

      Buffalo Grove police sometimes pose as solicitors to catch people breaking laws aimed at preventing distracted driving.
    courtesy of Buffalo Grove police

  • Buffalo Grove police use unique methods to try to catch drivers who are violating laws banning some uses of electronic devices while driving.

      Buffalo Grove police use unique methods to try to catch drivers who are violating laws banning some uses of electronic devices while driving.
    courtesy of Buffalo Grove police

  • Buffalo Grove police use unique methods to try to catch drivers who are violating laws banning certain uses of electronic devices while driving.

      Buffalo Grove police use unique methods to try to catch drivers who are violating laws banning certain uses of electronic devices while driving.
    courtesy of Buffalo Grove police

 
 

Nothing like a good game of Scrabble. Except that driving gets in the way.

I kid you not. Recently, Buffalo Grove police C-I-T-E-D a driver playing Scrabble on an electronic device.

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I was amused by the story until I remembered speaking with Gloria Wilhelm this April at a distracted driving conference. She lost her son, Matt, when a woman downloading ringtones hit his bicycle in 2006.

"He flipped up in the air and landed head-first on the pavement," she said. "He took part of my heart with him."

Pressure from the Wilhelm family helped to enact new laws in 2010. One bans drivers from talking on cellphones in construction and school zones. A second prohibits the use of electronic devices to read, send or compose electronic messages, which also applies to accessing the Internet.

The laws are useful tools -- up to a point, a survey of local police indicated.

"The intention is excellent. The execution is difficult," Schaumburg Deputy Chief Paul Rizzo said.

Police need to prove a driver is engaged in an illegal use of his or her phone or electronic device, and that can be problematic sometimes.

"Our officers for the most part drive in a standard police car which sits lower than the average SUV," Naperville police Sgt. Gregg Bell said. "If a driver is in a SUV and the police are in a car, it's difficult to see in."

Buffalo Grove investigators are posing as solicitors at intersections so they can get a clear look into vehicles.

"It's more manpower-intensive, but it's been very successful," Buffalo Grove Sgt. Scott Kristiansen said. "We want to make sure we get it right."

McHenry County Sheriff's Sgt. Karen Groves drives around in a pickup truck observing drivers and radios in scofflaws to police in a nearby car.

"We have a long period of observation before making the decision to stop someone and we have a pretty high confession rate," Groves said.

Just as there's a proliferation of apps, there's a proliferation of excuses drivers use.

"Almost nobody says, 'Yeah, I was texting,'" Groves said. "It's like stopping someone for drinking and driving -- they tell you other things they were doing."

Some people think the law only applies to texting, but Internet use -- from playing "Angry Birds" to watching a baby laugh at a bubble-catching dog on YouTube -- are equally illegal, Kristiansen pointed out.

"It's not simply texting, it's electronic use," he said.

But there are some cellphone or electronic device functions that while equally distracting are legal. And that's a loophole police are hoping legislators will close.

Two statistics at the conference caught my attention -- a car can go the length of a football field in 4 seconds, and about 5,500 people are killed by distracted driving a year.

I thought of all the times I've dialed numbers, talked on the phone, read maps and glanced at the baby in the back seat while driving.

So here's my pledge and a challenge. I intend to spend the rest of the year focusing on the road -- no cellphone calls, no powdering my nose, no distractions. Will you do the same?

I'll give updates regularly on my successes and failures. And please send along any thoughts or distracted driving horror stories to mpyke@dailyherald.com

Gridlock alert

Be prepared for pain if you're traveling on Route 20 in east DuPage County this summer. On Friday, Illinois Department of Transportation workers closed the eastbound lanes of Route 20 between Walnut Street and York Road near Bensenville. All traffic will be shifted to the westbound lanes, meaning one way in each direction all summer. The reconstruction project costs $6 million.

Your voice

Reader and longtime Metra commuter David Dachtera chimes in on the good old days of concessions sold on trains. "The concessions didn't actually take up seating space. They were built in the vestibules of selected cars, one on each train," he wrote. "Of course, since these were rush-hour trains, the last people boarding outbound had to squeeze through the often inebriated crowds on their way forward in search of seats or standing room. Naturally, the 'bar' cars stank of stale beer every morning. One can easily imagine the smell back in the days when smoking was permitted aboard Metra trains."

Did you know?

Despite having 66 percent of Illinois' population, the Chicago metropolitan area receives only 45 percent of the state's road funding, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. For information on CMAP's GO TO 2040 comprehensive regional plan, check out cmap.illinois.gov.

Two more things

• If installing child seats has you gnashing teeth and calling a divorce lawyer, take heart. Illinois State Police and the Illinois Tollway are holding a series of child seat safety programs coupled with providing free kids' identification cards. The cards include photos and finger prints to be used in case of an emergency. Police will also advise and inspect child seats. An upcoming event is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Roselle Walgreens. For more information, visit Illinoistollway.com.

• Sound off on or applaud proposed changes to two Elgin bus routes. Pace holds a hearing from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday on combining Route 544 Chicago Street and Route 554 Elgin-Woodfield into a single route. The meeting is at Elgin City Hall. The concept could improve regional connections and make it easier for commuters in five communities to get around, Pace Chairman Richard Kwasneski said.

In Transit: Electronic use while driving illegal, not just texting

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