Editorial: Hopefully, tougher penalties will 'make a dent' in distracted driving
It's hard to believe it already has been five years since Illinois instituted a law banning drivers from using of a hand-held cellphone. That's not just because time flies; it's also because of the large numbers of drivers one still sees clamping a phone to their ears or staring into a screen in their palm.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that in the most recent year for which data is available, 2017, distracted driving figured in 9% of all fatal crashes, claiming 3,166 lives. And, safety officials in Illinois, including Illinois State Police, say Illinois' law hasn't been "making a dent" -- to quote state Sen. Christina Castro -- in addressing the problem.
So, on July 1, the penalties for ignoring the law get tougher under new legislation Castro, an Elgin Democrat, sponsored. No longer will first-time scofflaws get by with just a warning, and the ticket for disobeying the law will be a moving violation, three of which in the space of a year could lead to a suspended driver's license.
Five years ago, that level of punishment was considered but rejected as "a little harsh," a secretary of state spokesman told our Marni Pyke. Now, it appears to be the minimum necessary to get the attention of drivers.
The law aims to stop people from using a handheld device to talk, send or read texts or access maps, music or any other apps. Using a Bluetooth device is allowed, but keep a couple of factors in mind.
For one, a growing body of research is showing that any phone conversation, including hands-free, increases the chances of a collision. It's not just holding the phone that causes a distraction but merely using it.
And second, issues of distraction aren't limited to use of an electronic device. Grooming, eating, drinking and any number of surprising activities that people somehow think are compatible with operating two tons of rocketing steel down America's crowded roadways -- well, are not.
When you do the math, you quickly see how looking away from the road even for a split second is courting disaster. Aurora police Sgt. Bill Rowley has done the math.
"In the amount of time it takes to simply look down and check a text -- if your car is traveling 40 mph -- it has already traveled half the length of a football field," he told Pyke. "If a child runs out on the road, there's no time to touch your brakes."
Consider that image the next time you're tempted to check a text or reach into the fast-food bag for another french fry. Is that message so urgent, that french fry so tantalizing that it's worth a child's life or that of any of the loved ones who may be traveling with you? Or, for that matter, yours?
These are the kinds of safety considerations we all need to be making irrespective of the law. But considering that, according to AAA, more than a third of us don't make them despite recognizing that texting and driving is dangerous, it's apparent we'll need some added incentive.
Des Plaines Police Chief William Kushner put that incentive in pretty graphic terms.
"We can't fix stupid," he said. "We can just give it a court date."
Let's hope that helps.