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Elgin drivers getting the message about phone use and driving

Elgpolice used this electronic sign last summer remind drivers not use their phones school zones with change law Jan. 1

Elgin police used this electronic sign last summer to remind drivers not to use their phones in school zones and with the change in law Jan. 1 will be using it again later this year to remind drivers that it is against the law to talk on your hands-one phone anywhere now. | Courtesy Elgin Police Department

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Updated: February 20, 2014 6:26AM

ELGIN — For the most part, people in Elgin seem to be heeding the message that the law in Illinois changed on Jan. 1 to ban talking with the phone next to their ears while driving.

At least that was the impression left from a ride-along late Friday morning with Police Traffic/Adjudication Supervisor Lt. Jeff Adam, traveling along roads on both the east and west sides of the city for two-and-a-half hours.

In that time span, Adam pulled over just three drivers he clearly saw using their phones — and missed another because of the concrete island in the middle of a road not allowing him a place to turn around.

Adam said that texting and/or phoning while driving, “is across the board. It’s everyone.”

Those stopped Friday offered examples to this point — and to a variety of excuses:

A 39-year-old man in an SUV stopped along McLean Boulevard just south of Larkin Avenue told Adam he was trying to listen to music by holding his malfunctioning smartphone to his ear — this while having a radio playing a talk station at the same time.

A 22-year-old woman in a sedan with a “Baby on Board” sign on the back window heading out of the Elgin Community College campus north onto McLean Boulevard said she was unaware that the law had changed as she doesn’t watch or read the news. She thought existing law applied only to those 19 years old or younger. She had been on the phone to tell the sitter she was on the way to pick up her son.

A 59-year-old man from Arizona driving a truck cab along Randall Road said he didn’t know you couldn’t talk on the phone while driving in Illinois. He had been calling a dealership to return the cab, which he had just bought, after having troubles with it.

Adam issued the latter two drivers warning tickets, while giving the first driver — whose story seemed to be more than a stretch — a $75 ticket. Second offenses for such bad behind-the-wheel behavior are $150. Dialing 911 to report emergencies while driving with a hands-on phone is still allowed.

“Our goal is to correct the behavior,” Adam said.

More warnings now

As such, when a law is new, Adam said police tend to issue warning tickets in the early stages unless there are extenuating circumstances. By summer, warnings will be less likely, with tickets the norm for such offenses.

The reason for the change in the law is mounting evidence about how dangerous distracted driving can be. The National Safety Council estimated in 2011 that “at least 23 percent of all traffic crashes — or at least 1.3 million crashes — involve cell phone use per year. An estimated 1.2 million crashes each year involve drivers using cell phones for conversations and at least 100,000 additional crashes can be related to drivers who are texting. Cell phone conversations are involved in 12 times as many crashes as texting.”

Texting while driving had been made illegal in Illinois for 2013, as was talking with your phone to your ear while driving in school and construction zones.

Last year, Elgin police wrote 636 tickets for school zone/construction zone violations involving either talking or texting while driving in such areas. Police also wrote 107 tickets in 2013 for texting while driving, according to statistics provided by Adam.

Tough to spot

Spotting people texting and driving while on patrol can be a challenge. Tinted windows can make it hard to see what drivers are doing. Unless the phone is clearly visible, people might be looking down at their seats for a variety of reasons. Other habits such as smoking or scratching can make it look like, in passing, that someone is using a phone.

Adam noted that Elgin police and their Explorers youth group have been getting the message about no phone use while driving by giving talks to groups from senior citizens to teens, giving out reminder bands as a promotional item. A video made available through AT&T about the dangers of texting has been used, too, as has social media, and even the electronic billboard for the Hemmens Cultural Center downtown.

And last year, no-texting enforcement was part of seat belt enforcement roadblocks police periodically ran through grant money awarded by the Illinois Department of Transportation. Those run this year will look for phone violators, too, Adam said.

At a roadblock last year, Adam said, he heard one of the best bad excuses: “She said she had her seat belt off so that she could reach her phone to send a text.”

Adam said that the fact so many people now use seat belts points to how it takes time for most people to comply with a new law. According to information from IDOT, since 1985, front seat belt usage in Illinois has gone from just 15.9 percent to 67 percent when a law went into effect in 1993, to 93.7 percent for 2013.

Hands free OK

Of course, drivers can still make calls in their cars using hands-free devices or hooking up a phone to a car’s sound system and using the speaker function.

“Many phone models offer built-in hands-free capabilities, like Google Talk and Touchless Controls on the Motorola DROID family,” Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Andrea Meyer said. “Additionally, Bluetooth accessories, such as the Jabra Freeway — that clips to a car’s visor — provide users with crisp sound via a speaker or headset.”

“Verizon Wireless has a long record of leading the way toward common-sense public policies. Since 2000, our record is clear: we support hands-free driving laws. Since the new law has gone into effect in Illinois, hands-free devices and accessories have been very popular with our customers,” Meyer said.

Still, as technology advances, the law can be slow to react. To that end, Elgin’s Adam said police in Illinois are already looking to see what can be done to prevent the misuse of devices such as Google Glass once such head-mounted computer displays become more readily available and affordable to the general public.

A traffic court in San Diego Thursday threw out a case where a woman had been pulled over for operating a video device while driving in October. According to reports, the commissioner thought there was not enough evidence to prove the driver had the device on at the time of the stop.

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