Metro-East News

State troopers crack down on drivers using cell phones

Nearly 500 drivers were ticketed by State Police troopers last year in the metro-east under a new state law that prohibits using cellular phones while driving.

On Jan. 1, 2014, a new law took effect in Illinois that bans talking or texting while driving for all but emergency responders. Prior to that, people could be ticketed for distracted driving for using their cell phones to talk or text in a construction or school zone or for talking or texting behind the wheel under any circumstances for a person under 19 years old.

Besides Illinois, 13 other states ban talking on cellphones with a hand-held device while driving.

Last year, troopers issued 488 tickets for unlawful cell-phone use in State Police District 11, which covers St. Clair, Madison, Monroe, Clinton and Washington counties — more than three times the 159 tickets they issued for unlawful cell-phone use in 2013.

Statewide, troopers ticketed 14,835 people during the first year of the new law that restricts drivers from using hand-held phones but allows for hands-free Bluetooth devices. In 2013, ISP issued 6,796 citations for unlawful use of phones while driving.

While the cell-phone law potentially takes up time police could be using to enforce other laws, officers and motorists interviewed by the BND seemed satisfied that the increased number of citations is a sign that the new law was doing its job of keeping Illinois roads safer. And they said they thought the time police use to write tickets to people who use a hand-held phone to talk or text was worth the investment.

Norvell Knox, 34, of Belleville, said he logs about 100,000 miles in a year as a driver of a tractor-trailer hauling tankers full of gasoline. So he’s seen his fair share of close calls due to drivers distracted by their phones.

“When you’re pulling a tank full of fuel, you’re always thinking about safety first,” Knox said. “It might take me five times as long to stop as it takes a person driving a car so you always have to be on guard.”

Knox said it’s amazing how often, when he has problems on the road, they’re caused by someone distracted by a phone.

“It’s you’re natural reaction, when something like that happens, to look at the other driver to see what’s going on,” Knox said. “And they’re almost always playing with their phone.”

Cody Hudspeth recently moved to Fairview Heights from Missouri. He said getting used to the restrictive Illinois law has taken some time. But he said he sees that, in the big picture, keeping people off their phone makes the roads safer.

“I’m the associate pastor of my church so I have people calling me all the time,” Hudspeth said. “I have to remember not to pick up or to hand my phone off to a passenger to answer if I get a call or a text in the car. It’s a little bit of a burden, but safety is the most important thing.”

Leaders of several local police departments said they won’t allow the cellphone law to stop them from attending to more pressing issues. If they’re on their way to an armed robbery, they’re not going to stop because they spot a cell-phone user behind the wheel. But, in the course of their normal patrols, it’s easy to spot and pull over offenders, they said.

Illinois State Police spokesman Calvin Dye Jr. said he believes the time spent wring cellphone tickets is worth it.

“As hard as that is to imagine, using your phone while driving might be even worse than driving under the influence,” Dye said. “I have seen cars halfway out of their lane or run off the road on the shoulder because people are trying to text and drive.”

Dye said he believes most cellphone tickets are written independent of other violations. Police see drivers talking and that’s the primary reason they’re pulled over. Typically they’re not pulled over for speeding or something else and issued a cell phone ticket, too.

The tickets cost $125, which is a hefty fine compared with most non-moving violations. But Dye said it’s important to enforce the law to clean the cellphone use off state roadways.

“A few years back when the law requiring seat belts was passed, there was something like 65 percent compliance,” Dye said. “After a few years of enforcement, that number eventually got up over the 90 percent mark.”

Dye said, like with seat belts, it was initially tough to get people to change the ways they were used to using their phones while driving. But a few years of enforcement, he said, would change the culture of cellphone use and make the roads safer, he predicted.

Emily Midden, manager of the Russell Cellular store in east Belleville, said she believes people have already started to change their habits.

“We have a lot of people who come into the store looking for Bluetooth headsets so they can work their phones hands-free and be in compliance with the law,” Midden said. “We sell a very popular device that fits around your neck. You never have to touch your phone to work it.”

Midden said those types of devices help overcome the obstacle people with some older cars experience. Most cars more than five years old don’t have a stereo system with the capability of working with the driver’s cellphone for hands-free use.

“It’s very reasonably priced at $79.99, plus you can use it as headphones to play your music when you’re not driving,” Midden said. “I think people will follow the law if they can. And this makes it so just about anyone can afford to do it.”

Dye said it’s impossible to say how many lives have been saved by the cell-phone law, or its impact on the number of crashes. He said police reports filed prior to 2014 often did not mention whether cell-phone usage was a contributing factor.

State Rep. John D’Amico, D-Chicago, the main sponsor of the Illinois cell-phone law, said enforcement is the only way people will learn not to text and talk while driving.

“To this day, there are still some who won’t accept that using a cell-phone behind the wheel can be fatal,” D’Amico said when the ban was being considered. “Hopefully, this law will bring increased attention to the issue.”