DeKALB – Local law enforcement officials are ready and more than willing to enforce an expanded traffic law cracking down on behind-the-wheel cellphone use.
The provision banning drivers from all handheld chatter takes effect Jan. 1. Fines for gabbing on the go start at $75 and increase with each subsequent citation.
Three tickets in a year could result in a suspended license. Illinois is the 12th state to pass such a law, but the first in the Midwest.
“We’re going to be pretty strict with the enforcement,” Sycamore police Lt. Darrell Johnson said. “I think it’s been an issue, a problem and a distraction for a number of years. It’s at a point that it needs to be addressed, and this is the solution.”
Texting while driving already is illegal, but the law is nearly impossible to properly enforce, according to Johnson. Phones can easily be hidden from view of police and even if they’re caught, it’s difficult to prove unless a driver admits to it.
“Quite honestly, as an agency, we would have loved to crack down on this sooner,” Johnson said. “However, with the language and nature of the statute, enforceability was pretty much nonexistent for us, and we recognize that.”
That’s all about to change. Johnson said he’s sure there’s been accidents to be blamed on distracted driving, but the culprits rarely confess that to police.
DeKalb police Lt. John Petragallo noted that it’s already illegal to talk on cellphones in construction and school zones. He said his department has done regular details targeting talkers in those areas.
“We are watchful,” he said. “This is just going to be a wide expansion of what we’re already doing.”
DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Gary Dumdie agrees that it’s probably a bigger proven safety hazard than what can be measured by accident reports.
He recalled a recent incident where an OnStar communication system caused a serious accident for a local woman. Those systems are legal and will remain so.
“Obviously, we’re going to enforce this law like any other law,” he said. “It’s been an issue.”
The new law also raises questions for police officers themselves. Many depend on cellphones for vital information that can’t be dispensed over public airwaves.
Dumdie said the sheriff’s office will consider whether deputies’ squad cars will be equipped with hand-free mobile technology. Additionally, the department will adopt new policies on cellphone use.
The new law does allow officers to use cellphones while driving if the call is duty-related.
Johnson said that his department’s current policy actually is stricter than the law that will take effect next year. Sycamore officers are allowed to use devices while driving only if it’s to check the plates on suspicious vehicles or to solicit information on a call.
“We’re in the public safety business,” Johnson said. “We want to make the roads as safe as possible, not only for the general public, but for our officers as well.”
He added that many Sycamore officers already use hands-free devices, but more may be done.
“We’ve got some decisions to make,” he said. “Whether we buy specific hands-free devices for each squad car, it’s a decision we’re going to make shortly. We’d like to provide that tool necessary for officers to make a phone call.”
Opponents of the law argue the responsibility should fall solely on the driver, not law enforcement.
Local opinion appears relatively supportive of the restriction.
“As careful as I am, it really changes my concentration,” said Mary Friedman of Hampshire. “I’m to the point where I have to pull over to make a call, so I think [the law] is a great thing.”
Ron Simon, of Genoa, agreed that the law’s expansion is a good thing, but said in today’s world it’s necessary for many people to have phone access while driving, and the habit will be difficult for many to break.
“I can see some people getting pulled over,” he said.
Johnson said the argument parallels the mandatory seat belt law, which first took effect in Illinois in 1988. People didn’t like it at first, but understood it and eventually fell into the subconscious routine of compliance.
However, the new law doesn’t completely ban cellular communications on the move. There is a menagerie of hands-free products available in most electronic marketplaces.
Most hands-free car kits allow the driver to control their telephone from a panel mounted on or near the dash. The kits are normally priced between $60 and $200 depending on features such as sound quality, amount of memory and voice command capabilities. Other options include bluetooth gadgets worn by the driver or that attach to the sun visor.
Johnson said when his officers start writing tickets, he’s sure there will be plenty of people playing dumb about the new law. But that’s won’t spare them a ticket.
“I think [ignorance is] going to be an excuse for some,” he said. “This has been so highly publicized and been such a hot topic for so long, it would be hard for me to imagine a driver on the road today wouldn’t be familiar with it if they’re from Illinois.”