Spot check show rampant texting, driving in suburbs
Daily Herald survey finds 1,000-plus drivers an hour using handheld phones
Part 1 of series
On Jan. 1, 2014, a sweeping new Illinois law banning drivers from using hand-held phones and electronic devices was enacted with high expectations it would prevent crashes and save lives.
Despite those good intentions, a team of Daily Herald journalists found more than 1,000 people breaking the law between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. one Thursday in the suburbs.
Nearly two drivers every minute -- or five drivers every three minutes -- illegally texted or talked on cellphones.
The scofflaws came in all shapes and sizes. There was the man in a dark business suit, surreptitiously placing a call while driving in Wheaton. An Elgin Area Unit District U-46 school bus driver checking messages at a stoplight with a busload of kids in South Elgin. The young woman fiddling with her phone, looking down as she drove through a Mundelein intersection with children in the back seat.
"Why is this (law) so easy to look past?" asked former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman, now head of the Itasca-based National Safety Council.
The answer lies in our instant-information compulsion, cognitive psychologist Paul Atchley said.
"When it comes to information that has value only for a limited amount of time, people feel like they must access it or lose that value," said Atchley, a University of Kansas professor. "They know it's bad and illegal and they engage in it anyway."
"It's habitual," Naperville police Chief Robert Marshall said of smartphones. "Everything's on that little device."
The National Safety Council estimates at least 26 percent of all vehicle crashes involve a driver talking or texting on a cellphone, which makes the Daily Herald's snapshot of a typical morning rush even more troubling.
Newspaper staff members surveyed 10 busy intersections across the suburbs and observed 1,004 scofflaws.
The worst intersection in terms of numbers was at Washington Street and Ogden Avenue, near downtown Naperville, where at least 153 people ignored the prohibition on driving and holding a device. At the southwest corner, not a single traffic-light cycle passed without at least one driver texting or talking.
However, the highest percentage of distracted drivers based on average volume of traffic was at Routes 45 and 176 in Mundelein.
Empirical trends showed more older drivers talking on cellphones and more younger drivers texting, reporters found.
The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration estimates about 660,000 drivers are using a phone or electronic device while driving at any given moment in the U.S.
"It's a mindset not that different from speeding," said Naperville Police traffic unit Cmdr. Ken Parcel. "People have a comfort level using their phones. They don't think it's a safety issue."
Naperville is the fifth largest city in Illinois and the Ogden/Washington intersection is among the busiest in town, which could account for the high ranking, officials said.
Other top locations were Route 31 and Fabyan Parkway in Batavia with 127 scofflaws, Routes 45 and 176 in Mundelein with 119, and Elmhurst and Dundee roads in Wheeling with 116.
Looking at the numbers based on average hourly traffic volume per intersection, 8.4 percent of drivers at Routes 45 and 176 in Mundelein were breaking the law. Batavia came second with 7.1 percent at Route 31 and Fabyan Parkway, followed by Naperville with 6.5 percent at Washington and Ogden.
The most law-abiding town turned out to be South Elgin with just 67 drivers disobeying the law at McLean Boulevard and Spring Street.
While some furtive texters seemed to be suffering from guilty consciences, many openly texted and chatted, oblivious to the fact they could face fines ranging from $75 to $150.
"Lots of folks are not following the law," said Republican state Rep. David Harris of Arlington Heights, who co-sponsored the policy. "Like seat belts, it takes time for the general driving public to realize that holding that cellphone is now illegal."
In Libertyville at the Milwaukee Road and Route 176 intersection, Daily Herald observers saw a number of drivers breezing through the intersection, phones up to ears. However, the majority spotted breaking the law had stopped at the traffic light.
Does that mean there's confusion about the exact provisions of the law, which applies to traffic at stop signs and red lights?
Wheeling police Sgt. Paul Hardt has heard all the excuses, including drivers who think hands-free means not holding your phone to your ear.
"Some people say, 'I had to take the phone call -- it was my boss.' Or, 'My child called -- I had to take it,'" he recounted.
Prior to 2014, Illinois had a patchwork of laws. These included prohibitions against texting and driving, against using cellphones in school or construction zones, and against school bus drivers using phones with passengers aboard.
U-46 Transportation Director Andy Martin said bus drivers who use cellphones are subject to discipline ranging from suspension to being fired. He encouraged anyone who sees a driver using a cellphone illegally to report the occurrence.
Police found the texting and driving law tough to prove, which led to the more comprehensive 2014 policy. Significantly, Illinois State Police reported a dramatic jump in distracted driving citations from 2013, when they issued 2,000 warnings, compared to 11,347 in 2014.
Likewise, distracted driving tickets in Naperville shot up from 79 in 2013 to 707 in 2014. And in Mundelein, citations and warnings went from 109 in 2013 to 1,470 in 2014.
But consider this -- of about 3,500 accidents Naperville police investigated in 2014, they issued 12 citations for using a cellphone directly related to those cases.
Using the National Safety Council's estimate of a 26 percent standard, 910 of Naperville's crashes could have been cellphone-related.
But when they can't catch scofflaws red-handed, police investigating crashes are hamstrung if drivers don't own up to distracted driving.
More often than not "people don't admit it," Hardt said. "When I talk to them, they say, 'Well, I just didn't stop in time.'"
"You can't write a ticket if you 'think' someone is on the phone," Parcel said.
Hardt said a recent Supreme Court ruling prevents police from looking at cellphones without permission.
"You need a court order to search a phone," he said. "You can't just say, 'Hey -- can I see your cellphone?'"
And given Wheeling handled about 1,000 crashes last year, it would be "extremely time-consuming" to issue subpoenas for all the cases where distracted driving is suspected, Hardt added.
"There's no way we have the manpower."