Hands off: statewide ban on cellphone use while driving takes effect

When driving his car, Mark Alcazar regularly talks on his cellphone.

Starting in 2014, however, the 36-year-old Woodstock resident will have to rely on his Bluetooth headset even more.

Beginning Wednesday, a statewide ban on handheld cellphone use while driving goes into effect. Drivers still will be able to use hands-free devices such as Bluetooth headsets, earpieces or speakerphones.

Communities such as Chicago, Evanston, Highland Park and Waukegan already have bans on people using handheld cellphones while driving. Similar bans are in place in California, Connecticut, Delaware and New York, among other states.

For Alcazar, he said he wished the law wasn’t changing, as people driving and speaking on cellphones is so common. It will probably take a few years for all drivers to get accustomed to the ban, he added.

“Everybody will be used to it eventually,” Alcazar said.

Gretchen Bullock, 47, of Crystal Lake, said she doesn’t think people should be able to talk on the phone at all while driving, whether it’s with a handheld or hands-free device.

“There are too many people who drive over or under the speed limit, who aren’t paying attention, because it is a distraction,” Bullock said. “You should pull over and stop.”

Reducing distracted driving is a key motivation of the new law.

Up to 30 percent of crashes involve a distracted driver, according to Illinois Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jae Miller.

“A recent IDOT observational survey shows that, at any given daylight moment, as many as one in eight drivers in Illinois ... can be observed using a handheld phone or texting device,” Miller said.

Miller added that a recent IDOT motorist survey showed more than half of Illinois drivers had used a handheld device while driving at least once in the last 30 days.

Monique Bond, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Police, said the new law allows people to have a headset, earpiece or voice-activated command system while using a cellphone, as long as people are not holding the phone.

Bond said hands must be on the wheel and the cellphone has to be in a secured area where it’s not distracting the driver.

Fines for being cited for using a handheld cellphone while driving a vehicle range from $75 to $150. People can lose their driver’s license if they have multiple offenses, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.

There also are penalties when distracted driving leads to crashes, Bond said.

If a person is distracted and causes a crash, he can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a fine of up to $2,500 and less than a year in jail.

If the driver is involved in a fatal accident, the driver can be charged with a Class 4 felony and face a fine of $25,000 and up to three years in prison, Bond said.

“The bottom line is we’re trying to save lives by promoting safe driving,” Bond said. “Meaning hands should be on the wheel when behind the wheel and on the interstate.”

The National Safety Council in a statement said it doesn’t think the law goes far enough.

It said the only sure way to reduce distracted driving crashes is for people to be completely focused on driving and not talking on a cellphone at all.

“By only restricting handheld phone use, the law fails to address the root of the problem – the cognitive distraction that results from having a phone conversation and driving at the same time,” the council said. “The only way to decrease crash risk is to refrain from using a cellphone for any reason while driving.”

Local law enforcement personnel are happy the law is going into effect.

Lake in the Hills has been working to warn residents the law is going into place by sending out mailings and news releases, said Director of Police and Public Safety James Wales.

Wales said driving while talking on a cellphone potentially can be as dangerous as driving drunk.

“We’re trying to get the word out beforehand,” Wales said. “We want voluntary compliance, but we will write tickets.”

Algonquin police may initially give people warnings for the first two weeks of the year to allow people to become acclimated to the new law unless someone is involved in an accident while talking on a cellphone, said Police Chief Russ Laine.

Laine added that having the ban in place helps address a safety issue.

“When people are driving and talking on the phone, it becomes a distraction and they don’t pay attention,” Laine said. “It creates a hazardous situation and creates accidents.”

Cellphone ban fines

First offense: $75

Second offense: $100

Third offense: $125

Subsequent offenses: $150

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