The case for a drivers' phone ban

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted12/30/2011 5:00 AM

By now, it's hard to argue against the consensus that driving while distracted is dangerous -- so dangerous that Illinois bans drivers texting, phoning in a construction or school zone, or using a phone at all if they're under 19.

It's also hard to get Americans to stop doing it: 18 percent of American drivers in a nationwide poll admit to having sent texts or emails while driving, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.


Despite so many people doing something dangerous and illegal, few tickets are being issued. As Daily Herald Transportation Writer Marni Pyke reported last week, a survey of 22 suburbs showed just 886 tickets were written in the first 11 months of 2011 for texting while driving or for phone use in a school or construction zone. By comparison, police in the same towns wrote 40,811 speeding tickets.

It's not hard to see why.

At a time when cellphones are ever more sophisticated, police need a clear view of the phone screen to separate a driver who might be texting from one who's scrolling his phone contact list or consulting his navigation app, which are perfectly legal.

Buffalo Grove police resort to posing as solicitors for charity so they can get a good look into cars and ticket texting drivers. But some other towns -- Grayslake and Rosemont, for instance -- hadn't written a single citation this year, as of Nov. 30, for drivers texting.

Into this assortment of laws and enforcement levels come several towns with separate bans on drivers' use of handheld phones, Chicago, Highland Park, Deerfield and Evanston among them. And now the latest: amid evidence that drivers' use of hands-free phones also is dangerous, the National Transportation Safety Board calls for a ban on phone use for drivers, period.

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While we're big fans of our mobile phones, we have to agree that the NTSB just might have it right.

For consistency among towns, enforcement ability and to avoid the risk of incremental laws simply swapping one dangerous phone-related habit for another, a ban on phone use while driving is the most logical goal.

It might not be so far-fetched.

Think how swiftly attitudes against texting while driving changed -- in 2009, 25 members of the Illinois House voted against banning texting while driving, while 92 voted in favor. It's hard to imagine such a split now.

Many of us are old enough to remember similar shifts in attitudes -- and laws -- regarding driving under the influence and seat belt use. The public's mentality changes, and often it just needs legislation to lead the way.

Employers, meanwhile, can help with strong policies against phone use while driving on the job. It's not impossible to change our behind-the-wheel phone habit -- or to change the law. And it is in our best interest.