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Illinois Issues
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Editor's Note: Despite Restrictions, Cell Phones Are Still A Danger on Highways

Dana Heupel
NPR Illinois

I’ll admit to a bit of a libertarian streak. I want the government to protect me from some things, such as terrorists, robbers and greedy investment bankers, but I’m not so sure when it wants to protect me from myself, such as requiring the use of seatbelts. So, as cell phones increased in popularity over the past two decades, I’ve been skeptical of attempts to limit or prohibit their use.


But now, I’m heading in the other direction. That’s because I commute about 25 miles round trip to work, and almost every day, I come across someone who is driving like an idiot while talking on a cell phone. I’ll bet you have, too.

You can recognize them by their silhouette: one hand on the steering wheel; one holding a phone to an ear. But often, you can identify them just by the way they drive: drifting over into the next lane, changing lanes or turning or exiting without signaling, traveling 20 miles an hour under the speed limit while nearby drivers play NASCAR to avoid them.

I’ll acknowledge that while driving, I occasionally answer a call or make one to let someone know, for instance, that I’m going to be late because I’m held up by a train or stopped in traffic. But the operative word — for me, at least — is “occasionally.” If I need to have an involved conversation with someone, I’ll call beforehand or afterward, or if I’m driving, tell him or her that I’ll talk later. The problem isn’t necessarily cell phones on the road; it’s when the freedom to use them is abused. We all have seen motorists apparently on the phone for an hour or more — we’ll pass them on the expressway because they’re crawling along or weaving in traffic, make a 15-minute rest stop and catch up to them again, still crawling or weaving and yakking on the phone.

Illinois does regulate the use of cell phones while driving. All motorists are prohibited from text messaging or using the Internet while behind the wheel. Drivers cannot use cell phones in school or road construction zones. Motorists younger than 19 cannot talk on cell phones while driving. And drivers in Chicago must use hands-free devices. That’s all well and good. But perhaps the state needs to do more.

In 2010, preliminary figures showed that in Illinois, cell phone distractions were the primary or secondary cause of more than 1,100 crashes, according to state figures. An Illinois House resolution passed in May calls for law enforcement in the state to better track cell phone involvement in crashes to provide data for a two-year study. Across America, the National Safety Council estimates that at least 23 percent of all traffic crashes — or about 1.3 million accidents annually — involve drivers using cell phones, including text messaging.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that at any given time, 1 in 9 drivers is using a cell phone. My anecdotal observances would be higher than that, but part of my commute is on a road that passes a high school, a community college and a state university. A Consumer Reports study found that drivers 30 or younger are 54 percent more likely to use cell phones than older drivers.

Legislation in the current General Assembly calls for studies about cell phone involvement in crashes and education programs for drivers — especially younger ones — on the dangers of phoning and driving. Several now-expired bills from the last General Assembly would have prohibited the use of hand-held cell phones while driving — allowing hands-free devices — but they didn’t get very far.

Besides Chicago, several other Illinois municipalities have enacted hand-held bans, including Highland Park and Evanston, according to the website handsfreeinfo.com. Plainfield also enacted a law against distracted driving, which includes cell phone use. Ten states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Utah and Washington) and the District of Columbia have banned the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.

The safety issues probably could be best-addressed through education, but the more I observe drivers, the more I believe that most are either oblivious to everyone else on the roadway, or they simply don’t care whether they endanger other motorists.

Limiting cell phones in vehicles to hands-free devices statewide might not be a solution, either. A 2008 study at Carnegie Mellon University found that just listening to a cell phone causes drivers to commit similar errors to those that can occur under the influence of alcohol. The findings “show that making cell phones hands-free or voice-activated is not sufficient in eliminating distractions to drivers,” according to a university news release. And that study confirmed a 2004 analysis by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, in which researchers “tested the hands-free approach and found that drivers — young and old — struggled to see dangerous scenarios appearing in front of them,” according to a release. 

That leaves prohibiting cell phone use altogether while driving. While it would never fly politically, maybe the threat of a ban would upset enough people that it would drive a serious discussion about the dangers of phoning and driving.

Any reduction in drivers distracted by cell phones would make the daily commute of most Illinoisans safer and much less stressful. And if we could address that problem, we even might be able to deal with motorists who slow their vehicles to a crawl when they see a red light 1,000 feet ahead, apparently unaware or unconcerned that a driver behind them — ahem, me — wants to get into the left turn lane before the green light there changes.

An Illinois House resolution passed in May calls for law enforcement in the state to better track cell phone involvement in crashes to provide data for a two-year study.

Illinois Issues, November 2011

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