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Put. Down. The. Phone.

Penalties for texting while driving steeper starting July 1

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This is a habit you’ll want to break come July 1. That’s when using an electronic device while driving becomes a moving violation on a first offense. Springfield had previously made second and subsequent offenses subject to points, but motorists weren’t getting the message. Starting Monday, using a handheld device immediately puts you on the road to suspension.

It happens all the time. State Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris) will be on the highway and have to take evasive action when a motorist swerves into her lane. Invariably, the inattentive driver is looking at his phone.

That was why Rezin wasted no time hitting the green button for “yes” last spring when a bill reached the Senate floor making this offense a moving violation the first time you get caught. It’s long been illegal to use a handheld device at the wheel, but Springfield didn’t classify a first-time offense as a moving violation — until now.

Starting July 1, anybody first-time offender gets points and, with subsequent offenses, faces suspension. You can bet your auto insurer will take note of the points, too.

“I think it’s a good move that the Legislature stepped up the penalties,” Rezin said from her car, which is equipped with a hands-free device so she can watch the road. “Texting and driving is epidemic and once we increase it to a moving violation people will finally take notice.”

One local police chief says he’s all for it, even though the data aren’t there to show a conclusive link between accidents and the use of electronic devices. Accidents are carefully documented, but current data protocols make it difficult to sort crashes by offense. This limits police ability to statistically say the extent to which phones contribute to crashes.

Anecdotally, phones seem more prevalent in single-vehicle accidents where somebody puts a car in the ditch because they were navigating the internet rather than the curve. A review of NewsTribune archives backs this up; most crashes found to have resulted from device usage were single-vehicle accidents.

“I think we’ve been lucky,” agreed Oglesby police chief Jim Knoblauch, “or at least we haven’t found enough evidence to show they were using their phones at the time of the crash.”

But Knoblauch said elevating a first offense to a moving violation absolutely is needed because device usage is visibly surging.

“Even when I’m driving my personal vehicle, I see people texting,” Knoblauch said, “and it scares me because they’re always looking down.”

If that weren’t enough to scare him, consider that at any given moment more than 600,000 people are on their phones while driving. That’s according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which also reports a motorist traveling at 55 mph takes their eyes off the road on average for five seconds when sending or reading a text. This equates to driving blindly for the length of a football field.

Secretary of State Jesse White advocated for the legislation, saying these statistics made steeper enforcement a matter of a public safety.

“With the increased use of technological devices, distracted driving has become a serious problem on the roads of our state and throughout the nation,” said White. “This important law will make our roads safer. No driver should be texting while driving.”

Springfield considered all this and both Rezin and then-state Rep. Jerry Long (R-Streator) attached their names to the bill making handheld usage a moving violation. The bill cruised (hands-free) through the Legislature and then-Gov. Bruce Rauner signed it last August.

Eleven months later, the law finally takes effect. Besides the fines — $75 for a first offense, escalating to $150 after four tickets — getting ticketed carries points that can lead to license suspension, making device usage a three-strikes-you’re-out proposition.

There aren’t many exemptions. State police pointed out the law was crafted to let you use your phones during a “natural stop” — stopped at a railroad crossing with the gates down, for example — but not with your foot on the brakes at a red light or in gridlock traffic.

And don’t think you’ll get away with it keeping the device below your steering wheel. State police have devised away to catch offenders from an elevated perch.

State troopers partnered with the Illinois Trucking Association to launch the “Trooper in a Truck” program. Troopers are now watching for device violations from the cabs of semis, where they can get a bird’s-eye view of who’s looking into their screens and not out their windshields.

One Peru lawyer said he’s telling clients to avoid using a handheld device.

“It’s not as serious an offense but it’s been proven that distraction can be just be just as dangerous in terms of the potential for an accident,” George Leynaud said. “One second and it’s all over with — and we’re all guilty of it.”

Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or courtreporter@newstrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_Court.

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Tom Collins is the NewsTribune Senior Reporter. He can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or courtreporter@newstrib.com.

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