Chronic distracted driver, crossing guard know texting dangers firsthand

  • The Itasca-based National Safety Council estimates that, on average, someone using a cellphone while driving is involved in a crash every 24 seconds.

    The Itasca-based National Safety Council estimates that, on average, someone using a cellphone while driving is involved in a crash every 24 seconds. Photo illustration by Brian Hill/bhill@dailyherald

  • Safety volunteer and fourth-grade Dundee Highlands Elementary School student Aiden Berndt holds a sign reminding parents not to use their cellphones in a school zone at the West Dundee school.

    Safety volunteer and fourth-grade Dundee Highlands Elementary School student Aiden Berndt holds a sign reminding parents not to use their cellphones in a school zone at the West Dundee school. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 6/6/2011 5:55 AM

Mary Aguilar runs a pet service out of her home and spends four hours a day driving to those appointments. Her contacts call her cellphone to book her, often while she's on the road.

In the past, Aguilar admits, the fear of losing business kept her from ignoring the phone. But enforcement of the new distracted driving law has helped her change her behavior.

 

Three months after the law went into effect, an Elgin police officer gave her a written warning for chatting on her phone in a construction zone. Last April, a South Elgin crossing guard yelled at her for talking in a school zone. Aguilar did not know the law applied to both zones until she had those encounters.

"Now, I hang up the phone," Aguilar said.

Last year, Barb Sances would have been one of those angry crossing guards. Sances, a Carpentersville crossing guard, was hit by not one, but two cellphone-using drivers in the past three years.

"I told her to get off the cellphone in a school zone and because she was on the phone; she didn't hear me," Sances said, recalling the time in October when she was left with minor injuries and a dented stop sign. "She was so distracted, she ran into me and my sign. I pushed the child out of the way and screamed."

These two scenes illustrate the complexities surrounding the new distracted driving law.

Statistics show distracted driving is becoming a hazardous part of our daily lives. The Itasca-based National Safety Council estimates that, on average, someone using a cellphone while driving is involved in a crash every 24 seconds.

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"Distracted driving is an epidemic," said U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who joined state lawmakers, police and educators at an April distracted driving summit held in Addison. It was organized by the National Safety Council and the advocacy group FocusDriven.

Holding up a Blackberry, LaHood added, "People think they can use these anytime, anywhere."

Illinois State Police are hitting distracted drivers pretty hard and paying special attention to school and construction zones to protect students and workers, said Trooper Maria Navarro, the safety education officer in Elgin-based District 2.

The state and federal governments have unleashed their own public awareness campaigns against distracted driving -- the federal government with its "Put it Down" initiative and the state with its "Drive Now. Text Later." program.

Two local businessmen have also produced a series of edgy public service announcements filmed at the DuPage County morgue and aimed at distracted drivers. State officials have urged local television stations to air the spots.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The "Put it Down" campaign encourages drivers to stop being multi-taskers and to put down the phone, GPS, digital music player or other electronic instrument of choice.

Other sources of distraction include eating, drinking, smoking, changing the radio station or CD, personal grooming (yes, that includes shaving) and reading a book.

State Trooper Aldo Schumann has seen it all.

In our multi-tasking lives, far too many people are using their commute increasingly to take care of other business, Schumann said.

"They try to kill two and three birds with one stone doing that," Schumann said. "People get distracted pretty easily. They don't think it's a big deal."

In Greg Zaffke's case, his mother Anita was riding her motorcycle through Lake Zurich two years ago when she was rear-ended and killed by a woman who was painting her nails.

Lora Hunt of Morris was found guilty of reckless homicide in the crash. She is serving 18 months in a work-release program and must pay nearly $15,500 in restitution to the Zaffke family -- penalties Greg Zaffke says don't go far enough to set an example.

"People hearing a distracted driver goes to prison and it goes a long way to deter other people from driving distracted," Zaffke said. "When they hear that (Hunt) only gets a year-and-a-half work release ... it's kind of counterproductive when it comes to public deterrence."

The Wauconda resident has formed a nonprofit group called Crash Coalition to raise awareness about distracted driving and support victims' families in the courtroom. Zaffke also hopes to push for statewide legislation that would create a negligent vehicular homicide statute -- a lesser charge to reckless homicide that would offer penalties beyond minor traffic fines that could follow a fatal accident. Wisconsin has a similar law on the books.

"If Lora Hunt was drunk the day she killed my mom, she would likely be in prison right now," Zaffke said, "instead of being able to get a job."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

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