Chicago drivers send texts, get tickets


Photo Illustration by Grace Wiley

Chicago drivers send texts, get tickets

By Assistant Metro Editor

Nine years after the city banned the use of handheld devices while driving, an estimated one in six Chicago motorists are still guilty of texting behind the wheel, authorities say.

Twelve states, including Illinois, prohibit drivers from using handheld cellphones while driving, yet 12 percent of accident fatalities in 2012 were caused by distracted drivers using cellphones, according to an April 3 U.S. Department of Transportation study. 

Henry Haupt, deputy press secretary for Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, said people were not texting and driving a decade ago, but now motorists are more distracted than ever, leading to a higher rate of crashes and fatalities. 

“Unfortunately, the statistics speak for themselves,” Haupt said. “Technology has become one of the greatest forms of driving distractions, and it’s so easy to use and become distracted by it. Texting while driving is actually six times more dangerous than drunk driving.”

To curb cellphone use while driving, the U.S. Department of Transportation launched an $8.5 million national advertising campaign running April 3–15 in observance of National Distracted Driving month. The campaign is the DOT’s first national effort to crack down on mobile phone  use behind the wheel.

A November 2013 Illinois Department of Transportation study found that almost 12 percent of Illinois drivers use electronics while driving, but Chicago drivers logged an alarming 17.6 percent, making it the state’s leading city for cellphone use while driving.

“Chicago actually had a law in the books against the use of handheld cellphones, and there is still one in six [people] using those,” said IDOT spokesman John Webber. 

The number of drivers using cellphones behind the wheel was less than 10 percent in downstate Illinois counties such as Champaign. Chicago’s rate of 17.6 percent could be attributed to the ease of using cellphones in heavy traffic, Webber said.

“[Drivers] see an opportunity to [use their phones] because the traffic isn’t moving very quickly,” Webber said. “The fact is, a lot of drivers wind up getting into heavy traffic situations and that’s what contributes to that sort of behavior.”

In August 2013, Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation to override a state law banning drivers younger than 19 from using their phones while driving. The new law, which went into effect Jan. 1, bans the use of handheld devices for drivers of all ages. State law requires that motorists only make phone calls using hands-free technology, according to an Aug. 20 DOT press release.

Webber said the Illinois State Police and local law enforcement agencies are strictly enforcing the law, which is easier to do now that both texting and talking on the phone while driving are outlawed.

“Arresting officers complained that if you can’t text while driving but you can use a cellphone [to make a call], it’s almost impossible to catch anyone,” Webber said. 

David Roman, safety education officer for the Illinois State Police, said there are multiple ways of catching drivers using their phones, adding that officers set up 25–50 state troopers on highways and use spotters and video recordings to catch offenders. 

Since the statewide ban on cellphones behind the wheel was enacted, 2,800 violators have been caught, Haupt said, adding that if drivers continue to use their cellphones while driving, fatalities and crashes are more likely to occur.

“We always talk about focusing on the task at hand, which is driving,” Haupt said. “We should be completely focused on that task, otherwise we jeopardize our own safety as well as those in our vehicle and others on the road.”