Texting and driving: Who's enforcing it?
One early Saturday afternoon last October, a 16-year-old Crystal Lake girl was driving her parents' Lexus through her hometown.
As she approached a curve on Country Club Road, she continued straight -- across a lawn and into the corner of a garage on Wedgewood Drive, resulting in substantial damage to both the garage and the car.
Luckily, nobody was injured.
The teenager later admitted to using her cellphone to send and receive text messages just before the car left the roadway, police said.
Besides being cited for failure to reduce speed to avoid a crash, she was ticketed for improper use of an electronic communication device, a law that went into effect Jan. 1, 2010.
Illinois' law makes several practices illegal. You may no longer read or send text messages while you're driving. Looking at a GPS, checking email, searching for a number and using the Internet are also no-nos.
If you're driving through a school or construction zone, you aren't allowed to even talk on your phone, unless you're using a hands-free device or dialing 9-1-1.
Drivers younger than 19 aren't allowed to make or take calls on cellular phones.
Violations are $120.
We wanted to find out how often the new law was being enforced.
So we identified 11 of the larger towns across the Daily Herald's coverage area -- Algonquin, Arlington Heights, Crystal Lake, Elgin, Geneva, Libertyville, Naperville, Palatine, Schaumburg, St. Charles and Wheaton -- to get a sense of how often local police were writing tickets.
Using the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, we requested all of the citations issued in 2010 for texting while driving from the 11-town sample and from Illinois State Police Districts 2 and 15, which blanket the Daily Herald's coverage area.
Pointing to privacy laws, the Illinois State Police refused to release the race of those ticketed, so we could not include race as a factor in our overall analysis.
Crystal Lake police declined to release the age of the motorists it ticketed, so we excluded the city from our analysis altogether.
Libertyville was the only municipality in our sample that did not issue citations for texting while driving in 2010. Authorities there did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
That left us with 308 citations, the majority of them issued by state troopers.
There are many ways to analyze the data, none of which points to a specific target group. The average violator is 28, but the oldest violator in our group was 72. More men than women were busted (57 percent to 43 percent.)
Schaumburg was the municipality with the most tickets issued at 36.
If you drive the expressways, be mindful of I-55 at Cass Avenue in Downers Grove Township, where 12 tickets were issued.
More people were ticketed for the offense in May last year than in any other month.
Perhaps because the glow of your phone's screen is easier to detect at night, the most popular time to get hit with a ticket is between midnight and 1 a.m. In second place is the hour just before that.
But one thing our study showed us is that there is a wide range of opinions on whether ticketing or education is the way to go in attacking the problem of distracted driving.
With 36 citations, Schaumburg ticketed more than any other municipal force in our sampling. Rather than targeting specific parts of the village, enforcement occurs all over town, said Lt. Kristine Provenzano, head of the traffic division.
"We've asked our officers to specifically watch for this," Provenzano said. "We're actively trying to reduce accidents and the enforcement ... goes hand in hand with these efforts."
With enforcement comes education.
About a month after the new law went into effect, the public works department installed "no cellphone use" signs in all of the village's school zones. Officials also devised public service announcements focusing on the dangers of texting and distracted driving that air on the village's public access channel.
Using an electronic message board, police have also warned motorists in well-traveled areas about the new law. They've posted the sign at the busy intersection of Golf Road and National Parkway, at the Metra station and on Schaumburg Road during last year's Septemberfest. Officers rotate the sign almost weekly.
"Our goal is not only to issue the citations, but to make sure the public is aware of the new law," Provenzano said.
In Naperville, a few drivers were caught doing a lot more than texting.
Of the 27 motorists police pulled over for the offense in 2010, three turned out to be DUI arrests in which the suspects admitted they had been texting while driving, Sgt. Gregg Bell said.
For example, someone arrested Feb. 20 on a DUI was also cited for speeding, improper lane usage, failure to display a driver's license and texting.
"It was good, old-fashioned police work where you ask questions and make your determinations from there," Bell said, noting that the bulk of Naperville's enforcement is downtown, where it's easier to see distracted drivers.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, St. Charles police only issued two citations last year -- one to a 20-year-old woman and the other to a 41-year-old woman.
"It's a relatively new law ... and so we do directed patrols for two different reasons," police spokesman Paul McCurtain said. "One is for education and then the other one is for the enforcement part."
Elgin police wrote just six tickets in 2010. The problem, Police Chief Jeffrey Swoboda said, is it's tough to catch drivers in the act.
But it's pretty easy to see a motorist swerving in and out of traffic. For that reason, Elgin police are more inclined to issue tickets for moving violations.
"We don't always enforce the texting," Swoboda admits. "Just because the texting isn't cited doesn't mean texting wasn't a part of the violation."
A rainy November ridealong with Illinois State Trooper Aldo Schumann bears this out.
Schumann was driving through a construction zone on Route 47 in Huntley when he pulled over an Indiana truck driver who had been punching numbers into his phone. The man, aware of the law in Illinois, said he was lost and was making a phone call.
Schumann let him off with a written warning for using a phone in a construction zone, because the driver knew of the texting law, but had never been stopped for violating it.
"He could say he wasn't texting 'til he was blue in the face," Schumann said after the stop. "Who knows? Only he knows."
Buffalo Grove police have gotten a closer look at offenders by posing as charity collectors at intersections.
"It's more manpower intensive, but it's been very successful," said Buffalo Grove Sgt. Scott Kristiansen, whose officers recently nailed someone for playing the mobile phone version of Scrabble behind the wheel. "We want to make sure we get it right."
What police look for
There are several clues that tip police off, when it comes to texting enforcement.
Holding your phone next to the steering wheel or looking down at something for several seconds at a time are dead giveaways you're fiddling with your phone, police say. Some texters don't even try to hide it.
"If they're using those thumbs, that's a good sign there's probably some texting afoot," Naperville's Bell said.
Several citations from state troopers noted drivers texting in construction zones or in congested traffic.
One driver even sent a text message while sitting next to a trooper's squad car, according to one ticket. Another trooper let the driver make between 20 and 25 keystrokes before pulling her over, another citation says.
Reckless driving seems to be yet another red flag.
One ticket from a trooper said the motorist had been weaving in and out of traffic, while another said the motorist was speeding and jumping from lane to lane at the time of the stop.
Other times, it's just too difficult to tell, particularly when the officer is in a squad car and the offender is driving an SUV or something larger.
The Crystal Lake girl
So, whatever happened to the teen texter in Crystal Lake?
According to court records, prosecutors dropped the texting citation in favor of a guilty plea for failure to reduce speed to avoid an accident.
She was sentenced to four hours in traffic school, paying $308 in fines and court costs and was placed on six months supervision.