Distracted driving in the suburbs: Few get caught

Editor's note: This is another in a series of occasional stories about the epidemic of distracted driving and efforts to curb it.

Only a fraction of drivers who break the law by texting are getting caught, a Daily Herald investigation has found.

Illinois' distracted driving law, although well-intended, is tough to enforce and contains loopholes, meaning injuries and deaths continue to take a toll, safety experts say.

The Daily Herald examined more than 41,000 citations issued by police in nearly two dozen representative suburbs in three categories: a common traffic infraction — speeding — and two distracted driving offenses.

Violations of the electronic use law, which includes texting, came to less than 1 percent of the tickets. And, only 1.4 percent of tickets were issued for using a cellphone while in a school or construction zone. The vast majority of tickets — 98 percent — were for speeding.

But those numbers aren't indicative of the number of motorists who use electronic devices illegally, authorities say.

“If you drive down any road and just watch people — the percentage of drivers looking at their phones is very high,” McHenry County Sheriff's Sgt. Karen Groves said.

“There are a lot of violations of that law going on — but it's incredibly difficult to enforce.”

A total of 5,474 people died in crashes related to distracted driving in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. That's 16 percent of 33,808 total vehicle crash fatalities.

As a comparison, 31 percent, or 10,591 people, died in speeding-related vehicle crashes in 2009.

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board made headlines by calling for a comprehensive ban on cellphones and any personal electronic devices while driving.

“It's time to put a stop to distraction,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said. “No call, no text, no update is worth a human life.”

But such action by the Illinois General Assembly seems unlikely in 2012.

“I don't think we're there yet,” Senate President John Cullerton said.

The Daily Herald reviewed police citations for distracted driving and speeding offenses from 22 towns in suburban Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30, 2011.

Speeding tickets made up 98 percent of the citations examined, although in Rosemont speeders made up 100 percent of the violations examined.

That's not surprising, explained Roy Lucke of Northwestern University's Center for Public Safety.

“Writing a speeding citation is pretty easy. All you have to do is point the radar or laser device at a vehicle and you've got the speed,” said Lucke, the center's director of transportation safety programs.

Texting and driving scofflaws comprised 0.7 percent of the tickets examined by the Daily Herald.

The reality is, more drivers are texting or using their phones for electronic communication than get caught, experts say.

“It almost certainly is underrepresenting the number of texting drivers out there,” Lucke said.

“The prevalence of texting among motorists is dramatically greater than would be indicated by the citations written,” said David Teater, senior director of transportation strategic initiatives for the Itasca-based National Safety Council.

So why are numbers of tickets for violating the electronic use law so low?

For one, the law is complicated, police say. It's prohibited for drivers to send a text or surf the Internet, but some non-Web-based programs are perfectly legal.

That means officers need to get a good look at what a suspected violator is doing. If a driver is simply making a phone call, he's off the hook.

“It takes extra effort and manpower,” Buffalo Grove police Sgt. Scott Kristiansen explains. Buffalo Grove officers take the unusual step of posing as solicitors at intersections in order to peer into cars and catch texting scofflaws.

The village has prioritized such surveillance, but budget cuts could affect that effort in 2012, Kristiansen said.

The fact catching texting scofflaws is so labor-intensive and complex accounts for fluctuations in the citations among municipalities.

In Lombard, just five people were cited for electronic use violations, according to information provided by the DuPage County Circuit Clerk's office. In Geneva, officers ticketed 25 people, police reported.

“The enforcement is not uniform across different jurisdictions,” said civil engineer Rahim Benekohal, director of the Traffic Operations Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Clearly, there's plenty of discretion.”

The Daily Herald also found a small number of citations for motorists using cellphones in school or construction zones.

Mundelein police issued 91 tickets for breaking the law, and that's because they targeted schools along busy roads, Deputy Chief John Monahan said.

“Every high school kid has a cellphone now,” he said. “So when you get kids who only have had their license (for a short time) distracted by a text or a phone call — obviously it's a concern for us.”

While safety advocates, like the NTSB and National Safety Council, want a blanket cellphone and electronic device ban for drivers, it's a hard sell for some politicians.

Illinois' texting law took time to pass and received several “no” votes.

Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat who has pushed for safety laws regarding child car seats and seat belts, said one problem with a ban on phones is that too many drivers would disregard it.

“If everyone violates it, you undermine respect for the law,” he said. “It's a little too early to run back and change the law yet.”

“I believe that distracted driving laws can be enforced,” the NSC's David Teater said. “A lot of law enforcement organizations don't know how to do it or don't have funding. Is it impossible to enforce? Absolutely not.”

As head of the McHenry County sheriff's traffic and investigations unit, Grove knows every word of the law and how to catch a violator. But “it takes a lot of man-hours to be sure you have all the elements of the violation covered,” she said. “Distracted drivers are out there 24 hours a day — it's very dangerous.”

Distracted driver opponents want tougher laws

Injured trooper warns against distracted driving

Local police struggle to stop distracted driving

Catching suburban texting drivers can be difficult

Why you should just hang it up

Chronic distracted driver, crossing guard know texting dangers firsthand

Tunnel vision Scientists: Our brains can’t safely juggle driving and cellphones, even hands-free

  Sgt. Scott Kristiansen checks whether drivers are texting while driving through the intersection of Arlington Heights and McHenry roads in Buffalo Grove. George LeClaire/

The numbers

Ÿ The Daily Herald reviewed police citations for distracted driving and speeding offenses from the following towns: Addison, Algonquin, Arlington Heights, Bartlett, Bensenville, Carol Stream, Elgin, Geneva, Glen Ellyn, Glendale Heights, Grayslake, Itasca, Lake in the Hills, Lake Zurich, Lombard, Mundelein, Naperville, Palatine, Rosemont, Schaumburg, Villa Park and Wheaton. The information was obtained through local police departments or the county clerk of the circuit court's office.

Ÿ Out of 41,700 citations, 98 percent or 40,811 were for speeding.

Ÿ The number of people ticketed for violating the electronic use law, which bans texting and other electronic communications while driving, was 306 or 0.7 percent.

Ÿ Citations for using a cellphone in a school or construction zone came to 583 or 1.4 percent.

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