Why Illinois is making penalties for texting while driving tougher

Starting next summer, drivers caught texting while driving will face stiffer penalties that - with enough violations - could ultimately lead to a judge's suspending their license.

The stricter penalties, which go into effect on July 1, 2019, were signed into law last week. People who illegally use handheld electronic devices while driving will be given a moving violation on the first offense instead of a nonmoving violation. Motorists who rack up three moving violations within a year can have their driver's license suspended.

The tougher penalty kicks in next year to give the public and law enforcement a chance to adjust, state lawmakers say.

State Sen. Cristina Castro, an Elgin Democrat who sponsored the legislation, says penalties under the current law, which went into effect in 2014, haven't done enough to curb motorists from using cellphones while driving. In 2017, about 9 percent of Illinois motorists were observed using electronic devices while driving, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. Nationwide, distracted driving caused 3,450 deaths in 2016.

"If we strengthen this law by making the first offense a moving violation, maybe people will finally put their phone down while driving," Castro said.

With a stiffer penalty, law enforcement may have more incentive to issue tickets to drivers who just can't stop texting or logging on to Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, Castro said.

According to the Illinois secretary of state's office, police issued 35,036 tickets for texting or talking while driving in 2017.

"I really feel that (law enforcement) will be able to realize they can use it now to enforce it more and ramp it up," Castro said.

Only the penalty will change under the new law, but here's a reminder of parts of the ban first implemented in 2014:

• Using the speakerphone while holding a cellphone is a violation of the law.

• Use of hands-free devices or Bluetooth technology is allowed only for people older than 18.

• Drivers may use handheld cellphones only to report an emergency, while parked on the shoulder of a road or if the vehicle is in park or neutral while normal traffic is obstructed - such as at a stoplight or train crossing.

• Headsets - other than a single-sided headset or earpiece - are prohibited.

• It is legal to press a single button to start or end a phone call.

Steering in the right direction New, tougher law shows we're serious about fight against texting while driving

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