Guest Essay: The Challenge of Tackling a 21st Centry Technological Issue with a 19th Century Process

Apr 1, 2010

Kevin McDermott
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
On September 2, 2006, bicyclist Matt Wilhelm, 25, was riding along state Route 130 near Urbana when a car struck him from behind. Wilhelm died six days later. The driver had drifted off the road while downloading ringtones to her cell phone.

The tragedy prompted Illinois this year to join 18 other states in restricting cell phone use behind the wheel. But soon after the law’s January 1 implementation, police declared its caveat-ridden language virtually unenforceable. “Damn near a waste of time,” St. Clair County Sheriff Mearl Justus told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in late February, by which time his county of more than a quarter-million people had seen exactly one ticket under the new law. It was a similar story across the state.

The short-circuiting of what was supposed to be a landmark Illinois safety measure provides a lesson in the challenges of legislating complex new technology. It’s also a reminder of some age-old political pitfalls.

The legislature, driven largely by Wilhelm’s death, passed House Bill 71 last year, outlawing “driving while texting.” Gov. Pat Quinn signed it in August, cautioning that “we get too distracted” with electronic communication behind the wheel.

That much is undebatable. Many believe “DWT” is as big a threat today as drunken driving. Studies show as many as 80 percent of drivers admit to cell phone use while driving. The National Safety Council says electronic distraction contributes to more than 1.6 million accidents a year. The threat mutates with every innovation in cell phones, global positioning satellite systems and other high-tech toys.

“Every time we think we have a handle on it, there’s a new gadget,” says state Rep. Bill Black, a Danville Republican. A co-sponsor of the new law, he admits he once ran a red light while fiddling with his GPS. “You can get so engrossed, trying to see that little red dot.”

Black wants electronic distractions off the road entirely. But the Illinois bill that finally emerged navigated a line between vehicular safety and technological convenience. Its ban on driving while “composing, reading or sending an electronic message” encompassed downloading ringtones and texting but didn’t stop drivers from making phone calls or programming GPS systems.

This splitting of technological hairs wasn’t entirely indefensible. Studies suggest that within the realm of dangerous electronic distractions, texting is particularly dangerous. A Virginia Tech study last year found that among truckers, dialing a cell phone made a driver 5.9 times more likely to cause an accident, while text messaging increased the likelihood 23.2 times.

The trouble with Illinois’ half- measure law (aside from the sobering notion that a six-fold increase in accidents doesn’t quite rise to the level of legislative imperative) is a problem of enforceability. Simply put, the banned and the permitted activities look the same, employing the same devices, even the same buttons. Soon after the law was implemented, police throughout Illinois reported they were writing few tickets because it was impossible to tell what drivers were doing on their phones while they cruised by, eyes down in their laps.

“They can still dial a cell phone number, which looks an awful lot like texting,” Greene County State’s Attorney Matt Goetten told the Jacksonville Journal-Courier. The question of what it would take to get a solid case against a driver was answered in Ottawa, where police didn’t write their first “DWT” ticket until March — and then, according to the Ottawa Times, only because the driver left her phone, with a half-written text message on it, sitting in plain view of the officer after she was pulled over.

This is partly the challenge of tackling a 21st century technological issue with a 19th century legislative process. We’re seeing other examples of this every year, as lawmakers struggle to address cyber-stalking, identity theft, Internet gambling and other new high-tech threats. At this writing, the General Assembly is pondering teenage “sexting,” a new twist on the dark old specter of child sexual exploitation — one in which the tool of the crime is in every pocket and purse, and the kid involved is both victim and perpetrator. This isn’t your parents’ legislative environment.

Still, the enforcement problems with the texting law were predictable. Worse, they were predicted. Here’s part of the Senate floor debate from May 13 on HB 71, between Sen. James Meeks, Democrat from Calumet City, and the bill’s co-sponsor, Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Cicero Democrat:

MEEKS: Marty, I’m awfully concerned about this piece of legislation. ... When I’m in my vehicle, how will a policeman know whether or not I’m texting or making a phone call? You have to push the same buttons to make a phone call as you have to do to send a text ...

SANDOVAL: ... [The police officer] can verify, while checking your device, that you did not send a text.

MEEKS: All right, so you do admit that sending a text and making a phone call looks similar to a police officer?

SANDOVAL: ... There is no doubt that the use of any handheld device, [such as] your cell phone and the GPS, would ... make you look very suspect that you are texting.

Technological labyrinth aside, the driving-while-texting bill was, arguably, quintessential “bad law.” The reasons have nothing to do with gleaming new gadgetry but with the age-old conflict between governance and politics.

If you accept the premise that electronic distraction behind the wheel is a law-worthy problem, the logical solution is a straightforward, easily enforceable law: No use of electronic devices while driving, period. If the cop sees you jabbing at your palm while you’re cruising along I-55, you’re getting a ticket.

But that good-government imperative ran into a hard political reality: Illinoisans are used to unfettered access to their cell phones. As happens with new technology, this thing we couldn’t have imagined a few years ago has become something we can’t imagine doing without, even briefly. We’re a sprawling, busy, chatty, asphalt-laden state, and the three-hour drive from Chicago to Springfield is about two and a half hours longer than most of us are willing to be alone with our thoughts.

“I was at a funeral (recently), and cell phones went off four separate times,” says Black, noting the difficulty of getting people to power down for a while. He likens it to the drunken-driving debate that raged in Illinois a generation ago — a debate that is effectively over now, as virtually everyone involved has come around to a zero-tolerance approach. He predicts a similar evolution on the electronic-distraction issue, as more Matt Wilhelm tragedies seep into the public consciousness.

“Will it be outlawed in a year? No. In two years? No. Five years? Maybe. ... I think that day is not far off,” says Black. “Eventually, the public is going to say, ‘Enough.’”

Kevin McDermott is Springfield bureau chief for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Illinois Issues, April 2010