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Distracted driving is the new DUI

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Matt Wilhelm was killed in September 2006 when a teenage driver, downloading a ring tone to her cellphone in Urbana, went off the road and hit him.

John “J.B.” Breen was texting while driving in 2009, lost control of the vehicle, went off the road and crashed, killing himself.

Linda Doyle was killed in 2008 when a driver just ending a phone call ran a red light and broadsided her car.

By sharing the stories of families impacted by distracted driving, organizers of the first-ever Illinois Distracted Driving Summit, held Thursday in Addison, hope people will become more aware — and laws will be strengthened — to change driver behavior.

“Each year, thousands of families needlessly lose loved ones” due to distracted driving — people texting, using a cellphone or hands-free device while driving, said Jennifer Smith of Focus Driven. The advocacy group was one of the major sponsors of the summit.

“We want to help develop a resource … to get people involved and help change behaviors” of drivers, Smith said.

Focus Driven also hopes the Illinois conference, which included U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White as keynote speakers, will encourage other states to hold similar events, she added. “We can save countless lives across the country,” Smith said.

The data exist to indicate how dangerous distracted driving is, LaHood told the 500-plus people attending the conference.

In 2009, the last year for which data are available, there were 5,500 deaths and 450,000 injuries across the country blamed on distracted driving.

“That is the tip of the iceberg,” LaHood said, noting that most police reports don’t document if distraction was involved in a crash.

Public awareness

LaHood and Janet Froetscher of the National Safety Council started Focus Driven in 2009 when they were waiting to be interviewed by CNN, LaHood said. Just as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers and Students Against Drunk Drivers created more public awareness — and more social stigma — regarding drunken driving, they hope Focus Driven can bring that same awareness to the issue of texting or talking on the phone and driving.

Distracted driving is an epidemic “because everybody in this room has one of these,” LaHood said, holding up a cellphone. “I know the majority of people in this room have one of these; and as much as you care now … we all think we can use these anytime, anyplace, anywhere. It has created bad behavior behind the wheel of a car.”

There are some laws in Illinois to prevent distracted driving, including a law that prohibits all driving and texting, and laws prohibiting talking on a cellphone in a school or construction zone, White said.

Graduated driver’s license laws also have helped reduce fatal crashes involving teens, White said.

“Our (fatal teen crash) numbers have dropped by 50 percent since we added graduated driving licenses,” White said.

The Illinois Department of Transportation and police report that for the past two years, there have been fewer than 1,000 deaths on Illinois highways. But White said, “One death is one too many.”

Like the work it took to toughen up child restraint and seat belt laws, LaHood said, it will take work to get tougher distracted driving laws passed.

“We do see that drivers will change their behavior,” he said.

Toughening laws

Programs such as Click it or Ticket have led to 85 percent of motorists using their seat belts “after 20 years of pounding into their heads … and police writing tickets,” he said.

Reducing the blood alcohol limit to .08 percent to be legally intoxicated also has helped to reduce the number of drunken drivers and increased the ability to prosecute them, LaHood said.

Still, said Chuck Wilhelm, father of Matt Wilhelm, Illinois law has not caught up with technology. The teenage girl who hit and killed his son was charged only with improper lane usage because there is no law for negligent vehicular homicide here.

“Even the judge was frustrated,” he said. “He couldn’t even give her community service.”

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