The cellphone ban: Is it working in the metro-east?

News-DemocratApril 19, 2014 

Three-and-a-half months after a state law banned talking or texting on cellphones while driving, fewer than 125 people have been ticketed for the offense in the metro-east.

According to public records, 110 people have been cited for violating the electronic communication device law in St. Clair County, while 11 have been cited in Madison County since the cellphone ban went into effect Jan. 1.

Of those totals, about half -- 61 tickets -- were written by Illinois State Police, which also issued 158 warnings to motorists.

State Police troopers wrote 24 of the tickets in one day in March when they conducted a 24-hour blitz called "Operation Sauter" in memory of trooper James Sauter, who was killed in the line of duty March 13, 2013, while conducting a traffic stop.

Law enforcement officials say it's tough to catch people in the act of using their phones while driving. But in a recent survey, a News-Democrat reporter witnessed plenty of people talking while driving.

During a four-hour period of observation -- half on Frank Scott Parkway West near Belleville West High School and the other half on U.S. 50 in O'Fallon near Green Mount Road, 156 drivers were spotted using their cellphones while driving out of about 2,150 motorists, or 9.3 percent.

The survey was unscientific and proved how difficult it can be to see inside individual cars. Many vehicles had tinted windows that made it impossible to tell whether drivers were obeying the law. Glare and the speed of some vehicles also were factors.

People who object to the law echo similar sentiments -- that if it comes to answering a call from a boss or sales contact, or from a family member, they're going to do it, law or no law.

"It's like when it became law that you had to wear a seatbelt," Illinois State Police spokesman Calvin Dye Jr. said. "It's going to be a long, slow process of getting people to follow the law. But, like with seatbelts, I think people will catch on over time."

A COSTLY PHONE CALL

Some of those who were caught said they were unaware of the ban and expressed sticker shock at the high price of the fines.

"When I got my ticket, it was only a few days into January," said Carla Petterson, of O'Fallon. "I was coming back from work going through Collinsville. I wasn't even using it. But I had my phone in my hand. The officer didn't even tell me why she pulled me over at first. When I asked her what it was for and she told me, I told her I wasn't talking and that my phone wasn't on. She said it didn't matter. I about died when I saw how much the ticket was."

Dye said a cellphone citation is a $130 fine -- twice the amount of a ticket for not using your seatbelt. He said a cellphone ticket can also cause other problems for recipients. A seatbelt ticket is considered to be an equipment violation and doesn't count against your license. A cellphone ticket is a moving violation that is reported to the secretary of state and your insurance company and could cause your premium to go up.

Becky Muir, of O'Fallon, said she respects the new law -- although she doesn't like it. She said she was ticketed Jan. 3, also while driving through Collinsville.

"My mom called me while I was driving and when your mom calls, you answer the phone," Muir said. "I answered and I saw the police car behind me so I told my mom I had to go. As soon as I hung up, the flashing lights came on."

Muir said she paid the ticket without argument because she knew she was guilty. But, while she plans to obey the law, she thinks it is unfair for working people who have to conduct business in their vehicles and for people who don't have new cars equipped with Bluetooth technology that allows them to legally talk through the vehicle's sound system.

"I don't have a car that's Bluetooth-enabled," Muir said. "Sometimes when the phone rings and it's an important work call, you have to take it. Is it safer to answer or to swerve over to the shoulder through traffic so you can take the call?

"I think it's an infringement on my rights just like the seatbelt law," Muir said. "I get the point of the law. I don't like it, but it's the law."

Muir said she doesn't see cellphone talkers as being nearly as dangerous as people who take their eyes off the road to read or type text messages. She thinks it's unfair cellphone talkers have been lumped in with texters.

"Texting is the real problem," Muir said. "I think this is just a way for the extremely corrupt and bankrupt state of Illinois to raise some funds."

But Dye said talking and texting while driving has become one of the biggest threats to safety of people on the roads today.

"It used to be that we looked for people swerving in traffic and it was a sign of driving under the influence," Dye said. "Now, more often than not, they're talking or texting."

According to Illinois Department of Transportation statistics, from 2008-12, more than 6,000 accidents on Illinois roads were directly blamed on a driver who was talking or texting behind the wheel. A total of 30 people were killed in those crashes. And Dye cautioned that those statistics are incomplete and don't tell the whole story.

He said there are believed to be many more cellphone-related crashes because police didn't always note the cellphone use in their accident reports prior to the ban. There are other cases in which the driver may have been distracted by talking or texting, but the accidents were blamed on other, more obvious factors such as excessive speeding or driving while under the influence.

THE SAFETY DEBATE

The law was proposed 13 months ago and passed in May. According to state records, 91 percent of Democratic lawmakers voted in favor of the ban while 83 percent of Republicans voted against it.

Locally, state Senator Kyle McCarter, a Republican, and Democratic representatives Jay Hoffman and Eddie Lee Jackson voted for the ban. Democratic Rep. Jerry Costello Jr. and Republicans Dwight Kay and Mike Bost said no.

The issue was hotly debated in the General Assembly.

The bill's sponsor, state Sen. John Munroe, D-Chicago, said at the time that studies indicate that people are four times more likely to have a crash while driving if they are using a handheld phone. He argued that the law wouldn't only protect drivers doing the talking, but also people in other vehicles who might be hit by them.

Sen. Sam McCann, R-Carlinville, argued when the ban was debated that it would not prevent drivers from taking their eyes off the road.

"We cannot legislate every minute of their lives," McCann said.

McCarter could not be reached for comment, but said at the time he was concerned about passing a bill that wouldn't be effective. He said it wasn't good enough to pass a weak, unenforceable law "because we care."

While the cellphone ban is one more law for local police departments to enforce, Belleville Police Department Capt. Don Sax said local departments don't see it as an additional burden.

"It hasn't changed what we do at all," Sax said. "We informed our patrol officers about it and told them, like with anything else, to be on the lookout for people who are breaking the law. But there is no requirement that they write so many tickets for people talking on their phone or texting."

In fact, Sax said the new law can be a helpful tool for officers in a couple of ways. First, if an officer is suspicious of a motorist who happens to be talking on the phone or texting, it gives police a justifiable reason to pull the driver over. Then the officer may have the opportunity to discover evidence of criminal offenses, such as drugs in the car. Second, enforcing the seatbelt and cellphone laws help officers to meet their required number of contacts with citizens each shift.

Dye said while State Police troopers are looking for cellphone violators, they're not a top priority. If they were, a lot more tickets would have been written by now.

"We see them and maybe we're on the way to an accident scene or a crime scene, so we can't stop right then and there to write a ticket," Dye said. "Or we'll see someone going the opposite direction in traffic and it wouldn't be safe to try to flip around and go after them. So we have to let some of them go. But, eventually, they're going to get a ticket."

Consistent enforcement over the long haul is what will change the culture of talking on the phone while driving, Dye said.

"When the seatbelt law went into effect, some people had gone their whole life without wearing their belt, so there was some resistance," he said. "But people got used to it and, over time, it has saved a lot of lives. I think will see the same thing with texting and talking on hand-held phones while driving."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or call 239-2626.

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