On the safety checklist for Illinois roadways, Gov. Pat Quinn marked off an important item Friday.
He signed legislation making it illegal, effective Jan. 1, for motorists to use a hand-held telephone while driving. Illinois will become the 12th state with such a law.
Now, it's time for drivers to take it seriously -- not just because of the penalties they could face if they don't restrain themselves but also because of the importance of the restraint.
Combined with Illinois' ban on texting while driving and a second measure Quinn signed Friday increasing the penalties for anyone who causes an accident while using a hand-held device, this legislation should make the roads safer for everyone in Illinois -- if we give it heed.
A vast body of research, including several Daily Herald reports, has demonstrated conclusively the risks of operating a hand-held cellphone while driving. At its website devoted to eliminating distracted driving, www.distraction.gov, The U.S. Department of Transportation emphasizes that any of the tasks related to using a hand-held phone increases the risk of a crash by three times, and it points out that at any given time during the day "660,000 drivers are using cellphones or manipulating electronic devices."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have charted a steady increase in the number of accidents and injuries caused by distracted driving and estimates it is responsible for nearly one in five collisions.
So, the statistical foundation for putting down the cellphone while driving is solid and alarming. And it may be just the beginning.
The Department of Transportation recommends against the use of cellphones, even hands-free, under any conditions except emergencies, and in December 2011, the National Transportation Safety Board urged all 50 states to ban cellphone use, whether hand-held or not.
Indeed, some experts fear that bans on hand-held use provide a false sense of security, masking acknowledgment of the growing body of scientific evidence indicating that, in the words of the Department of Transportation, "headset cellphone use is not substantially safer than hand-held use."
So, although no state has gone as far as the outright ban the NTSB seeks, clearly, prohibiting hand-held use is not the final word. More study and analysis is necessary, and Illinois' hand-held ban will help provide an important new baseline for comparative safety statistics.
Of course, it shouldn't take an army of statisticians to identify the risks inherent in guiding two tons of metal wrapped around an explosive fuel canister as we hurtle along in the midst of hundreds of other people performing exactly the same task. It's a danger that clearly requires our full concentration but can be too easily dismissed. Illinois' new law at least makes a start toward putting our attention back where it belongs.