Police cracking down on motorists who can't put phones down

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Police cracking down on motorists who can't put phones down

Julie Hardy of rural Rantoul was sitting on her Victory motorcycle at the stoplight at the corner of U.S. 136 and Murray Road when she happened to glance to her right.

She spied the bane of many fellow motorists — a person driving with her head down, gaze fixed upon a cellphone.

What happened next came in the blink of an eye.

The woman's car plowed into the back of a van stopped at the light, sending it crashing through the intersection.

"She might have been going at least 30 miles per hour," Hardy said. "The sound of the impact was pretty scary, and it was about 6 feet away from me."

As a motorcycle rider, Hardy is especially cognizant of the need to be a defensive driver. But in cases like the above, there's nothing anyone can do if a motorist is going to ignore the safety of themselves and other drivers by texting and driving.

"It's just something that continues to terrify me," said Hardy, who added that she probably would have been killed if she had been the one the texting driver hit.

"I see people on their phones all the time like it's not a big deal," Hardy said. "I'm probably less defensive when I'm driving a car because I'm protected more" than when riding a motorcycle.

"Still, I don't text and drive."

Police step up efforts

Rantoul police Lt. Justin Bouse said his department issued 138 citations for "electronic communication" — drivers either talking or texting on their phones — in 2017.

So far in 2018, there have been 71 citations.

In Urbana, police handed out 22 such tickets in four hours Tuesday as part of a targeted enforcement at the intersection of Florida Avenue and Race Street, just days after a Mattoon man was sentenced to 30 months of probation and six months in jail for distracted driving that led to the death of a Camargo girl in 2017.

Steven Kruse, 38, pleaded guilty Thursday to aggravated unlawful use of an electronic communication device while driving on Interstate 57 near I-74, leading to the death of 10-year-old Caitlin Conner.

He admitted to reaching for his cellphone after it dinged, then looking up and not being able to stop before crashing into the car carrying Caitlin.

Kruse is the first person in Champaign County to be convicted of the charge of distracted driving that leads to a death since it became law in July 2014.

Urbana's distracted driving enforcement Tuesday wasn't in response to this case, said Sgt. Andy Charles, but a regularly scheduled effort targeting Race and Florida.

"Distracted driving raised its head at that particular intersection," he said. "We identified it at that particular spot as being a potential causal factor (of crashes) and one we can have an impact on."

Of the 25 tickets issued there Tuesday, 22 were for talking or texting, two for seat-belt violations and one for a stop-sign violation.

'Trying to catch Pokemon'

In Rantoul, many of the distracted-driving tickets have been issued by Sgt. Dustin Morgan, who said he makes it a point to look for drivers on their cellphones.

Morgan sees many people with their heads down looking at their lap. But if he doesn't see them holding a phone, he doesn't stop them, because he has no proof that they are using it.

Some people don't learn when they get one ticket. It's not uncommon for there to be repeat offenders.

One local woman won the prize. Morgan said he ticketed her twice within 45 minutes for electronic communication.

"One was at Veterans and Century, and then I went across to Maplewood and Grove, and she was talking on the phone again," Morgan said.

During the "Pokemon Go" craze, he stopped a driver who was "driving his car on the roadway like an idiot, and that's what he was doing was trying to catch Pokemon driving down the road."

It's legal for drivers to use the hands-free function on their phone to speak. They just can't be holding the phone up to their ear.

Morgan said many people have Bluetooth (hands-free) functionality in their vehicles but don't use it.

Morgan said he's written "several hundred" tickets for electronic communication, and the majority aren't written to teens or "twentysomethings." They go to people between 35 and 45 years of age.

Morgan said he believes cellphone usage is responsible for the higher number of traffic accidents in the area.

"It's no coincidence," he said. "A reasonable person doesn't just crash into a stopped vehicle. People aren't complying with the law. You see it everywhere you go.

"I've been a policeman since 1994, and I can't remember ever a period of time of people wrecking at the rate they are now."

Penalty: Not stiff enough?

Bouse said one thing that plays against more cellphone users being caught is that most police cars are marked.

"A person who knows the law and sees our squad car might put (the phone) down before we see them," Bouse said.

Many officers try to conceal themselves by using buildings to block their presence from drivers.

Studies have shown it takes at least 4.6 seconds to send a text. A person driving 55 mph will have covered the length of a football field in that time.

What's clear to Morgan is that the current penalties for cellphone usage while driving aren't working. Under Illinois statute, electronic communication is an equipment violation, not a moving violation.

"It's like having a headlight out," Morgan said. "It's a $75 fine with a total cost of $120 (when figuring in court costs). The second offense is a $100 fine, while third and fourth offenses are $125 and $150 fines, respectively. Adding in court costs makes it more expensive."

Morgan said he believes the penalty should be tougher.

"It's just too tempting when you hear your phone go off to want to look at it," he said.

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