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updated: 8/27/2014 9:08 AM

Lombard crackdown shows drivers routinely break cellphone law

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  • Video: Hands-Free Cell Phone Patrol

  • Lombard police officer Brad Bichel stops Wanda Hubbard of Maywood for talking on a cellphone. Hubbard, who normally uses a Bluetooth device but had forgotten it, was let off with a warning.

       Lombard police officer Brad Bichel stops Wanda Hubbard of Maywood for talking on a cellphone. Hubbard, who normally uses a Bluetooth device but had forgotten it, was let off with a warning.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Denise Gibson of Willowbrook was pulled over on Roosevelt Road by Lombard officer Brad Bichel and was let off with a warning.

       Denise Gibson of Willowbrook was pulled over on Roosevelt Road by Lombard officer Brad Bichel and was let off with a warning.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Lombard police officer Brad Bichel types in a driver's information before issuing a ticket.

       Lombard police officer Brad Bichel types in a driver's information before issuing a ticket.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Lombard officer Brad Bichel stops a woman for using her cellphone while driving. The driver said she was using the GPS function on her cellphone, but because it was in her hand it is a violation of the state's hands-free driving law.

       Lombard officer Brad Bichel stops a woman for using her cellphone while driving. The driver said she was using the GPS function on her cellphone, but because it was in her hand it is a violation of the state's hands-free driving law.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • A card handed out by the Lombard Police Department gives drivers information about the Drop It and Drive campaign.

       A card handed out by the Lombard Police Department gives drivers information about the Drop It and Drive campaign.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

 
 

Officer Brad Bichel is cruising west on Roosevelt Road in his gray, unmarked squad car when he spots another violator.

It often takes less than 10 minutes.

"The thing I notice first is, usually, they're not staying in their lane," he says. "They look a lot like a drunken driver when they're on their phone, when they're texting."

Bichel, a member of the Lombard Police Department's traffic safety unit, makes a quick U-turn, speeding up to keep an eye on the driver he spied with cellphone in hand.

Use of hand-held electronic devices while driving has been illegal in Illinois since January, but many drivers are ignoring the law.

Bichel sees drivers distracted by their cellphones every day. On a broader scale, District 15 state police, who monitor only the tollways, have issued more than 2,100 tickets and warnings in the first six months of the year.

In Lombard, police are in the midst of a monthlong campaign to crack down on illegal cellphone use.

The Daily Herald joined Bichel on the job recently to see how he handles drivers he sees talking or texting while behind the wheel.

Some were typing away with both thumbs while waiting in a left-turn lane. Others were hurrying down four-lane roads with a cellphone clearly up to their ears.

In three hours, Bichel issued two tickets but gave several warnings. One went to Wanda Hubbard of Maywood, who acknowledged her offense.

"I'm running late for work, left my (Bluetooth) earpiece at home," she said. But she had no beef with getting pulled over.

"I think it's fair," she said. "You shouldn't talk on your cellphone when you're driving. It's a distraction."

Nila Khurshid of Downers Grove also was given a warning for talking on her cellphone. She said she still hasn't adapted to using an earpiece while driving.

"I feel so awful," she said, adding that she knows using a phone while driving -- hands-free or not -- is a bad habit. Getting pulled over, she said, will serve as "a good reminder" to stay off the phone.

Others were not so lucky. One man driving a red Mercedes who declined to be interviewed admitted he was texting his wife. Bichel wrote a ticket after he saw an email pulled up on the man's phone.

That type of activity is exactly what officials from the Illinois Tollway, Illinois Department of Transportation, AAA Chicago, state police and the Illinois secretary of state's office are working to prevent with a statewide campaign called Drop It and Drive.

The initiative works to educate people about the rules and reason for the hands-free law.

"People have come to believe that we have to respond immediately," said Kristi Lafleur, tollway executive director. "The reality is, if you feel that you're going to be tempted -- and goodness knows that we all can be -- by the distraction of a cellphone or smartphone, turn it off."

According to IDOT, cellphone distractions were the primary or secondary cause of more than 1,200 crashes in Illinois in 2012.

Bichel said he's grateful he hasn't had to respond to any crash scenes where someone was seriously hurt because of cellphone distractions, but he has seen his share of scary situations.

One woman slammed into a postal service truck because she was texting while driving down a residential street. Bichel found another driver using an iPad to look at YouTube videos while driving.

Two people Bichel stopped during the Daily Herald's ride-along appeared to be texting but claimed to be using their phones' GPS. The law does not specifically restrict their use, but they must be "physically or electronically integrated into the motor vehicle."

To Bichel, that means drivers using a cellphone as a GPS need to mount the device on their windshield or dash.

"They need to be plugging in the addresses before they start driving," he said. "They can't be holding their phone, looking down at it because that's equally as dangerous as looking down at a text message."

Approved by Gov. Pat Quinn late last year, the law bans drivers from talking or texting on a mobile phone unless they use hands-free technology -- such as a Bluetooth headset, earpiece or voice-activated commands -- to conduct a conversation. A driver is allowed to press a single button on a phone to begin or end a conversation.

Some exceptions allow use of a handheld device during emergencies, or if a driver is parked on the shoulder. A driver also may use a cellphone if a car is in neutral or in park, or if the vehicle is stopped due to normal traffic being obstructed.

Bichel said perhaps that exception is acceptable when a car is put in park while waiting for a freight train to pass, but otherwise, he says, drivers shouldn't be reaching for their phones during short pauses at red lights or in traffic.

"The law was written to get cellphones out of their hands," he said.

Fines start at $75. Repeat offenders could pay up to $150 and eventually have their driver's licenses suspended.

When he writes tickets, Bichel gives drivers a small handout about Drop It and Drive. The words "Phone in one hand, ticket in the other" are printed on the front, along with a short explanation of the ban and tips on how to avoid distracted driving.

Fortunately, Bichel says, most drivers he stops seem to get it.

"I think most people are grateful that we're out there doing it," he said. "They understand it's dangerous."

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