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updated: 12/29/2013 12:12 PM

Hands off: Illinois drivers must change phone habits in New Year

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  • Texting remains illegal in 2014, but so will dialing a phone while driving, even if you're hands-free during the call. "That is when you are taking your eyes off the roadway, and it is dangerous," says Arlington Heights police Cmdr. Andrew Whowell.

       Texting remains illegal in 2014, but so will dialing a phone while driving, even if you're hands-free during the call. "That is when you are taking your eyes off the roadway, and it is dangerous," says Arlington Heights police Cmdr. Andrew Whowell.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Texting remains illegal in 2014, but so is dialing a phone while driving, even if you're hands-free during the call. "That is when you are taking your eyes off the roadway, and it is dangerous," says Arlington Heights police Cmdr. Andrew Whowell.

       Texting remains illegal in 2014, but so is dialing a phone while driving, even if you're hands-free during the call. "That is when you are taking your eyes off the roadway, and it is dangerous," says Arlington Heights police Cmdr. Andrew Whowell.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Bluetooth phone connection will be one of the only legal ways to use a cellphone in a car starting Jan. 1.

      Bluetooth phone connection will be one of the only legal ways to use a cellphone in a car starting Jan. 1.

  • Jeff Swoboda

      Jeff Swoboda

  • Robert Marshall

      Robert Marshall

  • Video: New cellphone law on ABC 7

 
 

Five years ago, Dave Winkelmann was forced to ditch his cellphone habits.

Good move.

A job change took the Naperville native to New Jersey, which banned the use of hand-held phones while driving. Winkelmann, on the road often and frequently talking business, adapted by buying a Bluetooth headset. Whenever his phone rings, he simply pushes a button to answer.

"There was no adjustment. If anything it was an improvement, because you have both hands free, and you don't have a big phone against your head while you're driving," said Winkelmann, who has since moved back to Illinois. "I'm shocked I don't see more people using one. I guess people don't like having an extra gadget."

Starting Wednesday, Illinois becomes the 12th state to ban driving and talking on the phone without a hands-free device, meaning drivers will need to follow the beat of Winkelmann's drum -- or face the music.

That doesn't necessarily mean a rash of citations will be handed out when the calendar changes though, local police say.

"We're not going to be out hammering people Jan. 1 with tickets," said Bill Holmer, Glen Ellyn's deputy police chief. "We know we have that as an enforcement tool, but we're going to look to educate drivers on the law as often as we can."

New rules of road

The law follows already established bans on texting and emailing while driving and talking on a cellphone in a work or school zone.

It replaces a patchwork of local laws, and it comes with exceptions.

A driver may use an electronic device to report an emergency. And use of a hand-held will be allowed while parked on the shoulder of a roadway, or with the transmission in neutral or park when the vehicle is stopped due to normal traffic being obstructed.

Pressing a single button to initiate or terminate voice communication is allowed, as is a voice-operated mode available on most smartphones. Use of Bluetooth or headset is permissible, but state law mandates that it cover only one ear. Drivers may use built-in systems available in many new cars that sync cellphones with car speakers, or they may buy devices that integrate their phones and stereo systems.

The simple act of dialing a phone while driving, though, can lead to a citation.

"That is when you are taking your eyes off the roadway, and it is dangerous," said Andrew Whowell, Arlington Heights police commander.

Still, there is some fudge factor.

"If you read the letter of the law, you're not supposed to be doing anything hand-held," said James E. Lamkin, who officially begins as Schaumburg's chief Monday after previously serving as St. Charles' top cop. "But I have to believe common sense will prevail. The difficult thing is people will try to be inconspicuous, which doesn't help us. I suspect some people will comply easily, and for others it will be a harder lesson. Like a lot of laws, the important thing is to retrain the way people handle things in the car."

The new law, he said, should make enforcement of all cellphone violations easier.

"From a police standpoint, there was a difficulty before," Lamkin said. "It's one thing if people were texting, but we didn't necessarily know what they were doing. This makes it a little more clear from an operational standpoint."

Getting caught talking on a hand-held while driving will carry increasing fines, from $75 for the first offense to $150 each for four or more offenses. Three moving violations within a year could lead to a driver's license suspension.

A separate law calls for stiffer penalties for distracted motorists who harm other drivers. They could face fines up to $2,500 and less than a year of jail time. Drivers involved in fatal accidents could be charged with a felony, which carries up to $25,000 in fines and up to three years in prison.

Regulate thyself

There is conflicting data on the correlation between cellphone usage and accidents. But a National Safety Council study showed that cellphone-related car crashes are drastically underreported, and that as many as 1 in 4 car crashes involve cellphone distraction.

"Anything that has the potential to reduce serious injuries and prevent needless traffic fatalities, we are in favor of," Naperville Police Chief Robert Marshall said. "This is just another distraction that through education and enforcement we can eliminate. Voluntary compliance is our objective."

Law enforcement officials are indeed targeting education, as much as enforcement, as a means to wean the driving public off hand-held devices.

Naperville and Elgin are among the police departments publicizing the new law through Facebook, Twitter and their websites. Naperville is putting out news releases, and Elgin Chief Jeff Swoboda plans to address it on his weekly radio show.

"Hopefully, through putting it out there, people will self-regulate so enforcement won't have to be so intense," Swoboda said.

Roadside checks are considered an impractical way to enforce the law, but departments have used "spotters" to watch for illegal texting. Naperville, for instance, partnered with its schools, positioning spotters to monitor cellphone use in school zones.

Arlington Heights is among several communities using spotters in uniform or civilian clothes to radio ahead potential violations. Police Chief Gerald Mourning expects to continue to use that approach to enforce the new law, despite it being labor-intensive.

Since 2011, Arlington Heights has issued 408 tickets for talking in a school or construction zone, and another 109 for texting.

"If someone has a phone up to their ear, it is presumed they are carrying on a conversation," Mourning said. "Today, if they're in a school zone, they're going to get a ticket. Now officers have discretion. If there is a sudden emergency they called on, we expect our officers to listen to rational explanations and use their discretion."

Swoboda does not foresee extra patrols in Elgin for the new law.

"We're not going to get to the point where we can stop every person, just like we don't stop every person that doesn't use their turn signal," he said. "Officers are very good at regulating themselves."

Drivers need to regulate themselves, too.

Dave Winkelmann says when he observes poor driving, he'll often see that driver on the phone.

Here's his solution for distracted drivers who increasingly expect to be wired and available for digital communications wherever the road takes them.

"The best way to increase car safety," he said, "is to just throw the phone in the back seat."

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