Illinois Bar Journal

March 2012Volume 100Number 3Page 126

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Undistracting drivers: First no texting, next no talking?

Will Illinois join the states that prohibit drivers from talking on cell phones and using other hand-held devices?

A bill has been introduced in the General Assembly that would prohibit all hand-held telephone use while driving a vehicle in Illinois.

If the bill passes, Illinois would become the tenth state in the nation to ban the use of cellular phones behind the wheel in all circumstances other than "clearly defined emergency situations." Hands-free cellular devices would still be allowed.

Mirroring Chicago, other ordinances

State Representative Karen May, D-Highland Park, introduced House Bill 3970 in January, urging lawmakers to adopt statewide safety measures similar to those encouraged by the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Safety Council. May said the national agencies promote statewide banning of all personal electronic devices while driving, including hands-free devices.

"NTSB research shows that people really shouldn't be doing anything that is distracting to them while operating a vehicle, and they recommend a total ban on cell phone use while driving," May said. "I felt we couldn't pass that, so I believe this bill [which allows hands-free devices] is the way to go."

The state law would mirror local prohibitions already in effect in municipalities including Chicago, Evanston, Deerfield, Winnetka, and in May's representative district in Highland Park. May said her proposed bill would prohibit all hand-held device use while driving except in clearly defined emergency situations.

"We've already got a patchwork of this law, and my community is one of the areas where people have been pushing for it," May Said. "But we need a statewide ban so drivers will know that using these devices really is that dangerous, and that it's prohibited everywhere in Illinois."

Drivers'-rights concerns

Mt. Vernon-based attorney and ISBA past President Mark D. Hassakis, who chairs the ISBA Legislation Committee, is not yet aware whether any consensus over the proposed law has been developed among the ISBA membership. He's personally in favor of a statewide ban on hand-held phone use while driving, yet he hopes to receive feedback from ISBA members and committee chairs about any concerns they might have with such a law.

On the one hand, Hassakis said "there ought to be some limits to the use of cell phones and texting while driving," and he said numerous other driving distractions cause legitimate safety concerns that could be included in similar legislation. On the other hand, some restrictions could reach too far and might unjustly infringe upon drivers' rights to make their own safety decisions.

"Right now I'm driving my car with a hands-free cell phone, with both my hands on the wheel, my eyes on the road and I'm still paying attention to safety," Hassakis said during a recent telephone interview.

"I'm in favor of some sort of limit as to what kinds of things people can do while driving," Hassakis said. "But it's not just cell phones, it's cheeseburgers, it's makeup application, it's dong your hair….Where do you draw the line on what's a permissible activity in one's vehicle, and what's not?"

Attorney Anthony E. Rothert, who chairs the ISBA Human Rights Section, agrees there are numerous distractions for drivers that can lead to horrifying accidents - everything from cell phones to cheeseburgers - but any statutory prohibitions must be weighed against constitutionally guaranteed rights to privacy and freedom of speech and association.

"I think a total ban on all cell phone use could be an overreaching law, but if it still allows for hands-free devices it probably won't get challenged," Rothert said. "When the government is creeping into people's personal lives, if you can find a real connection - not an imagined one - to safety, it could be a legitimate law, but if the legislation is not really addressing a connection to safety, but is just reaching into people's personal lives for symbolic purposes, the law could fail."

According to the Illinois Department of Transportation, cell phone use was a cause or contributing factor in more than 500 vehicle accidents in Illinois in the first half of 2010. In November of 2011, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration imposed a national prohibition against interstate truck and bus drivers using hand-held cellular devices while driving.

Adam W. Lasker is a Chicago-based lawyer and writer.

Member Comments (1)

The problem with yet one more traffic offense is that it creates yet one more excuse for the cops to stop a driver and then the shakedown begins. And for the most part, the fact the person was not in fact using a cell does not invalidate the stop, provided the cop has a "reasonable belief" that there was an offense, a very flimsy standard.

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