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updated: 5/29/2011 8:31 AM

Catching suburban texting drivers can be difficult

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  • McHenry County sheriff's Sgt. Karen Groves is on the lookout for distracted drivers.

      McHenry County sheriff's Sgt. Karen Groves is on the lookout for distracted drivers.

  • McHenry County sheriff's Sgt. Karen Groves is on the lookout for distracted drivers.

      McHenry County sheriff's Sgt. Karen Groves is on the lookout for distracted drivers.

  • McHenry County sheriff's Sgt. Karen Groves and Deputy Matt Matusek talk to a motorist he stopped for surfing Facebook.

      McHenry County sheriff's Sgt. Karen Groves and Deputy Matt Matusek talk to a motorist he stopped for surfing Facebook.

  • McHenry County sheriff's Sgt. Karen Groves and Deputy Matt Matusek talk to a motorist he stopped for surfing Facebook.

      McHenry County sheriff's Sgt. Karen Groves and Deputy Matt Matusek talk to a motorist he stopped for surfing Facebook.

 
 

"Just been fined $120 for distracted driving."

That could have been the Facebook post for a motorist caught by McHenry County Sheriff's Sgt. Karen Groves for violating a state law banning texting while driving.

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The citation was the payoff for more than an hour's vigilance along Route 31 on May 23 watching driver after driver whiz by gripping cellphones and Blackberries.

"This law's unbelievably complicated," said Groves, who heads up the sheriff's traffic and accident investigations unit.

She's referring to legislation that went into effect in 2010 banning driving while using electronic devices to read, send or compose electronic messages, which applies to accessing the Internet.

Known widely as the texting law, it's a well-meaning policy but tricky to enforce because of loopholes, police say. Officers must prove a driver is engaged in texting or using the Internet not simply dialing a number or using a non-Web-based program on their phones.

"People can do a lot of things on their phones," Groves said. "The law needs to be tweaked a little bit to make it something that's more enforceable."

State Rep. John D'Amico, who sponsored the initial bill, said he understands police concerns.

"If we end up getting a bill passed that banned hand-held cellphones that would eliminate a lot of the loopholes," said D'Amico, a Chicago Democrat whose district includes the Northwest suburbs.

But such a policy won't happen overnight and would face pushback. The electronic device bill was opposed by some legislators, which surprised D'Amico.

"I don't care what argument you make," he said, "if you drive and look at your cellphone at the same time, something bad is going to happen."

Nearly 6,000 people died in 2010 as a result of crashes involving a distracted driver, according the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Drive-by stakeout

As a traffic investigator, Groves knows firsthand the carnage distracted driving can cause. That's one reason she's sitting in a pickup truck along Route 31 in Crystal Lake staring at vehicles. Her head swivels back and forth as she peers at drivers. There's a woman steering and reading a map at the same time. A man is eating and driving. Countless motorists are using cellphones or Blackberries.

"I'm surprised you haven't seen a cereal eater yet," she told a Daily Herald reporter.

In an unmarked squad a short distance away sits sheriff's Deputy Matt Matusek, ready to pull out when Groves gives the word.

"When I see this -- that's when I get going," she said, holding up a cellphone above the steering wheel.

An erratic SUV catches her attention.

"That guy in the Yukon, he's doing something," she radios Matusek.

Groves pulls out and follows the SUV as does Matusek but it's a false alarm. The driver was fiddling with a GPS unit.

"He's all over the road but there's nothing we can do about it," she said.

A Ford Explorer is next to catch her eye.

"I think we've got a keeper," Groves tells Matusek. She gets into the lane next to the Explorer and keeps up a running commentary.

"He's reading something. He's using his right thumb. He's not looking up at all. He's tapping the screen. It looks like he's sending a text."

Oblivious to Groves' scrutiny, the driver hits an orange cone. Matusek activates his emergency lights and Groves heads over to the stopped SUV.

The driver explains he wasn't texting but calling home repeatedly because of a medical problem. His story's credible, so Matusek ends up issuing a warning for improper lane usage. "Welcome to my world," Groves says, returning to the pickup truck.

It's a lot of time and effort on the part of a veteran traffic investigator. But only a meticulous approach will bring convictions unless the law changes, Groves said.

Even accessing cellphone records isn't a slam dunk in court as the time an accident is actually called in can differ from the time a text or other electronic use happens.

"We do subpoena phone records but I don't expect too much from the results," she said.

A Chevrolet Malibu grabs Grove's attention next. When she catches up with the driver, "he's scrolling through something," she radios Matusek. "He's looking at apps, he's reading something."

Matusek stops the Malibu when it heads into a fast-food restaurant parking lot.

After Groves explains what she's seen, the driver, 48, admits he was on Facebook and receives a $120 fine.

"He didn't say that initially," she said. "It took a little probing. You really have to give it effort and have a pretty good look at what they're doing."

Making the case

So far, most prosecutions are coming from efforts like Groves', said Illinois Department of Transportation traffic safety resource prosecutor Elizabeth Earleywine.

"We're not seeing a lot of cases unless it's in areas where they are doing enforcement check points," she said.

"Some police departments are doing enforcement zones where they stand on the street corner and look in cars. If they do see texting, it's easy, but if you're driving along on patrol -- how do you see it unless you're flush with the windows? And if you can't see it, an officer can't testify in court."

Backers of the bill knew it wasn't perfect, DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin said, but "the idea was to pass the law and make people aware of it. By making people aware, there's a certain percentage who will not text and drive because they know it's against the law.

Berlin added that the law could have a greater impact if penalties are increased to include a possible suspension of an offenders' drivers license, for example. "Then the public would take it seriously."

D'Amico said he's working with Secretary of State Jesse White to convene a distracted driving task force to re-examine the law. That, coupled with data supplied by pending legislation requiring police to record if cellphones or electronic devices are involved in crashes, could give legislators the ammunition to grapple with a cellphone ban.

It's not likely to gain her any Facebook friends, but a ban on hand-held cellphone use could be the only way to make the policy enforceable, Groves said.

"There are plenty of ways people can get around this law."

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