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updated: 3/11/2013 5:05 AM

Proposed hand-held ban puts distracted driving back in the hot seat

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  • A driver using a cellphone is a crash waiting to happen, safety experts say.

      A driver using a cellphone is a crash waiting to happen, safety experts say.
    Daily Herald File Photo

 
 

Could this be the year a hand-held cellphone ban goes viral in Illinois?

I won't hold my breath ... but I will track the progress of a House bill prohibiting drivers from yakking on hand-held phones. The measure cleared the House two weeks ago with a 64-46 vote, and now Sen. John Mulroe will carry the torch in the Senate.

Currently, there are a smorgasbord of laws across Illinois. The state bans texting while driving and forbids motorists from using cellphones while in school or construction zones. Teenage motorists are prohibited from talking on all phones, as are bus drivers. Meanwhile, Chicago and some other municipalities outlaw driving and talking on hand-held phones.

"It's not uniform throughout the state and that makes it difficult for people driving through different towns," said Mulroe, a Chicago Democrat whose district includes Des Plaines and Rosemont.

"This will provide more safety on our roads and, hopefully, prevent accidents that lead to deaths."

The next step is for the bill to be scrutinized in a Senate committee, most likely transportation, Mulroe said.

Republican Sen. Karen McConnaughay, former Kane County Board chairman, is the Transportation Committee's minority spokeswoman. She's not on the bandwagon.

Although the legislation is "well-intended," McConnaughay said, "if it's cellphones this week -- what is it next week? Your morning cup of coffee?

"You and I take responsibility when we get behind the wheel of a car -- I don't know if we need to legislate people to do the right thing."

Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican and Transportation Committee member, had similar reservations. "Do we actually need a law to recommend common sense?" he asked.

"This is a big step from banning texting. There's a big difference between texting and just speaking on a cellphone in terms of distraction, although both are dangerous."

But patchwork distracted driving legislation is illogical, Mulroe argues. "If professional drivers shouldn't be using phones in their hands, I think that policy should extend to casual drivers," Mulroe said.

Mulroe sought a similar policy change last year but held the bill after Senate President John Cullerton "had some concerns."

This time, "I believe he will support it," Mulroe said. "I've presented other reasons why we should adopt the policy."

I couldn't get a read on the response from Cullerton via spokeswomen Rikeesha Phelon. "He supports the concept and will review the bill," she reported.

Mulroe points to complaints from police that the texting law is problematic to enforce because people claim they were doing something else with their devices when stopped. The House proposal allows for one simple, easily enforceable law, Mulroe thinks.

"It's a matter of trying to provide more safety on the road ... there are accidents directly related to using phones," Mulroe said.

Safety experts, however, stress that hand-held devices aren't the only killers on the road.

Using a hands-free device while driving is also hazardous because it's a cognitive distraction. Our brains don't actually multi-task -- they switch rapidly from task to task, scientists say. For example, you may be driving and having an argument with your spouse or talking to a client. Even if you're using a hands-free device, you're still distracted and could cause a crash.

That's why the Itasca-based National Safety Council disagrees with a ban on hand-held phones alone.

"Our real concern is that it encourages people to think they're engaging in safe behavior which isn't safe behavior," said the NSC's David Teater. "It sends a message that as long as you're wearing a Bluetooth, it must be safe. I applaud the legislature for addressing this but take the next step and go for a total cellphone ban while driving."

For a two-wheeled perspective, I got some help from Bartlett's Terry Witt, a cycling advocate.

"The bill is straightforward and simplifies enforcement," he said. "While there are other dangerous forms of distracted driving, cellphone usage is wide spread, easy to see and a conscious decision. Cellphones do not belong in the hands of drivers."

Mulroe said he mustered enough Democrat votes last go-round, but Dillard predicts negligible GOP backing. "This bill faces uphill sledding. I voted for the ban on texting but Republicans generally do not like Big Brotherism. Downstate Republicans tend to be against these kinds of things," Dillard said.

But Mulroe thinks 2013 is the year for a statewide ban. "This time's a charm," he said. "If it can save one person, it's worth it."

What's your opinion? Drop me an email (but not while you're driving!) at mpyke@dailyherald.com.

One more thing

All you bicyclists out there. Cyclist deaths have risen in recent years -- bicyclists killed increased 12.5 percent from 2010 to 2011 when 27 fatalities occurred, Witt informed me, noting that 2,984 cyclists were injured. "Distracted driving is not measured, but pedestrians and bicyclists are 17.6 percent of the traffic fatalities and 65 percent of pedestrian/bike crashes are during daylight," he said in an email.

Last week was the National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C., where cyclists lobbied for a greater focus on preventing bicycle and pedestrian deaths. To learn more, visit www.bikeleague.org.

Your voice

Reader Kathy Teacher of Libertyville wants raises for nonunion Metra employees rescinded, saying it's not fair for riders who've experienced hefty fare hikes recently. "I am shocked and appalled that such big increases could occur in the salaries of certain Metra employees," she wrote.

"I certainly don't know all the background, and as a recent letter to the editor from the Metra CEO states, it is not a large amount in the total Metra expenditures. (At a time) when the state of Illinois cannot figure out how to meet its pension obligations (for state workers), I also wonder how the salary increase affects the amount that will be owed (by Metra) in pension benefits for these specific employees with increases of 30 percent, 42 percent, and 46 percent.

"It was stated that these employees are nearing retirement so on the surface it seems that not only is the salary increase a HUGE bump up, it also is a HUGE pension obligation as well. While the rest of the working population of Illinois gets minimal salary increases and some people taking salary reductions, I do not see how the Metra raises are justified."

Upcoming

Got strong feelings on widening the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90)? Or do you just hanker after informational displays? Either way, you can opine at two Illinois tollway open houses. Construction on I-90 this year includes work in the eastbound lanes between Elgin and Rockford. The forums run from 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Huntley village hall, 10987 Main St., and Thursday at the Belvidere Oasis.

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