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Government, Politics & Issues

Get off that cell phone: Illinois ban on texting becomes law Jan. 1

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 29, 2009 - Starting Jan. 1, it will become illegal in Illinois to write, send or read text messages, instant messages and e-mail, as well as to surf the web while driving. The law also prevents drivers from talking on their cell phones while driving through a highway construction zone or school zone.

The new Illinois regulations apply to people of all ages. That's different from Missouri's law, which went into effect this fall and bans motorists 21 and younger from texting while driving.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed the texting ban bill in August. Drivers caught tapping on their cell phones will receive a moving citation, which stays on their driving records and carries a $75 fine. The state had previously responded to concerns about technology and distracted drivers by banning teens from talking on their cell phones while driving.

At least 23 deaths and 2,370 injuries since 2004 are attributed to drivers distracted by their cell phone, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation's data from August, the most recent month for which numbers are available. Still, cell phone distraction accidents make up less than 1 percent of total crashes in the state.

Illinois officials are confident the law will help curb the number of accidents caused by distracted drivers. "Texting is the same thing as driving with your eyes closed," said Mike Stout, director of the state transportation office's Division of Traffic Safety. "We're expecting that if people abide by the law, we will see a significant decrease in crashes, thus resulting in fewer injuries that cause death."

Missouri Could See Changes

In Missouri, inattentive drivers accounted for more than one-fourth of all traffic accidents and more than one-fifth of fatal accidents in 2008, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation. Cell phone use was responsible for 13 fatal crashes and 1,788 total crashes last year.

Missouri lawmakers have already filed several bills for the 2010 session to broaden the texting while driving ban to include all motorists, regardless of age. State Rep. Don Wells, R-Cabool, who introduced a bill in the House, told the Associated Press that having an age limit to the law is "like saying, 'You can kill yourself if you're over 21.'"

State Sen. Ryan McKenna, D-Crystal City, who sponsored the bill that passed last year, is also behind the effort to extend the texting law to cover all motorists. He originally floated a comprehensive ban but didn't have enough support for that effort.

Revee White, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said the department is in favor of an all-out texting ban and would help support the effort. In November, the department banned its employees from texting while driving a state vehicle or while using a personal vehicle while on state business.

"A lot of research shows how dangerous [texting] is, and we've always discouraged it," White said. "But now we thought it was time to have an official policy."

White and others have plenty of research to cite. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that almost 6,000 people were killed and about 500,000 people were injured last year in traffic accidents tied to distracted drivers. The agency estimates that distractions (including cell phones) contribute to 25 percent of all police-reported traffic crashes.

What 's the law?

For a map of the United States that shows what states have which restrictions on texting and driving, click here.

And a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study released earlier this year revealed that when drivers of trucks send or received text messages, they were 23 times more likely to crash or nearly get into an accident than drivers who weren't distracted.

Juanita Carl, a University City resident who said she doesn't text while driving, said she would like to see all cell phone activity in cars outlawed in Missouri.

"I've seen enough risky behavior from drivers, and I've seen enough cell phone users terrify people they don't see to be convinced that it needs to be illegal" for drivers, Carl said. "Texting in particular is a terrible distraction; it's like reading a book while you're behind the wheel."

Sandy MacLean, a Clayton resident and occasional political commentator for KWMU, said he favors banning all cell phone use in the car. He said Missouri's current law is a "step in the right direction," but that a comprehensive ban is inevitable. He said he is glad to see Illinois enact its law.

Still, plenty of people aren't convinced that these new laws will change drivers' habits. Glenn Deles, a High Ridge, Mo., resident who said he occasionally reads text messages while driving but doesn't send them, said he doesn't think laws banning texting will be effective.

"People who would not text anyway don't need this law, and people who want to do it will break the law anyway," Deles said. "It's not the technology that's the problem. I've seen people apply makeup in their car. People will always figure out ways to do something bad while driving."

All Eyes on Enforcement

Capt. Tim Hull, director of the Missouri State Highway Patrol's public information and education division, said it's too early to tell what kind of effect the texting law is having on Missouri drivers. He didn't have a count of how many citations had been given out. When this kind of law goes into effect, Hull added, officers often start by issuing warnings.

Hull said it can sometimes be difficult to tell if someone is texting or simply looking down to check a map. Deles agree that the Illinois law will be hard to enforce. Stout said that while texting laws can be difficult to implement, law enforcement officers will slowly learn to spot the texting offenders and pull them over. The fear of being caught should also decrease the number of messages being sent and received, he said.

Master Trooper Ralph Timmins, safety education officer with the Illinois State Police, said he's often able to tell when someone is sending a text message. Other times, he'll spot drivers who he's convinced are drunk but who actually are just texting while behind the wheel.

Timmins, who works from a Collinsville office, said people on the road already call officers to report other drivers who are texting.

Lt. Scott Evers, an operations officer with the Edwardsville Police, noted that officers still have to observe the texting violation and have probable cause to pull over a motorist. "That's not hard to do right now," Evers said. "It's not unusual to pull up beside someone and see them looking down at their phone."

Officers who suspect that an accident was caused by a texting driver can subpoena the offender's phone records, Hull noted. But Evers said he doesn't see law enforcement going that route in most instances.

Deles, who often drives between Illinois and Missouri, said he doesn't expect out-of-state drivers to know the rules unless they are posted on bridges and in other visible places.

Evers said he expects some confusion from Missouri residents driving on the Illinois side. "Unfortunately people who come from a different state don't always realize that the law applies to them when they're in our state," he said.

Students have long gotten the message about the dangers of driving while distracted from driver's education schools. Jim Bell, owner of the Tri-City Driving School in Illinois, said several years ago his school followed the Illinois secretary of state's directive to incorporate cell phone use into the lessons about driving while distracted. He's recently spoken to students about the specific dangers of texting -- and now he has a law to cite.

Added Mike Sugrue, manager of the Missouri Driving School: "We didn't feel like we needed a law to address this issue. This is nothing new -- anything that is a distraction to a student is frowned upon."

Timmons said he hopes the law will help parents get their point across. "Mom can now tell her child that texting while driving is against the law, not just a bad idea," he said. "Plus, who wants to pay $75?"

Bell, who is also an instructor at the school, said some students question why lawmakers often single out teenagers in laws regarding cell phone use in the car. "We try to impress upon them that there is no magic age when [texting or calling] becomes safe, although younger drivers obviously are at a higher risk of getting into an accident."

Bell added that students tend to have a mixed reaction to any kind of texting law: Some say it's a good idea; others don't understand the need for such a regulation. His thoughts on the Illinois law: "I won't say it'll have a big impact: People who are used to texting will continue doing it. But it might deter some people, and we'll find that out soon enough."

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