Area drivers used to multitasking while behind the wheel will need to peel their cellphones from their ears beginning Wednesday. That’s when a new state law banning the use of handheld devices while driving goes into effect.
Those who break the law could face fines starting at $75.
“Distracted driving is a problem,” said Champaign Deputy Police Chief Joe Gallo. “If this law can reduce some accidents, it certainly won’t hurt.”
Urbana police Lt. Bryant Seraphin said the new law is “very simple” — drivers can still gab on the go if they use equipment that incorporates hands-free technology; they cannot operate a motor vehicle using hand-held wireless telephones, hand-held personal digital assistants or portable mobile computers.
“At the end of the day,” Seraphin said, “if you put a device up to your ear, you are going to have problems.”
“Our goal is to have everyone arrive at their destination alive and well,” said Trooper Tracy Lillard of the Illinois State Police. “Please remember to slow down, buckle up, avoid distractions, and don’t drink and drive.”
Hands-free is OK
The law does include exceptions that allow drivers to make calls if they use certain technologies.
“Specifically, the driver using the electronic communication device needs to be in a ‘hands-free’ or ‘voice-operated’ mode, which may include the use of a headset,” Lillard said.
However, such headsets may only cover one ear.
Seraphin said the law also provides exceptions for GPS systems and navigation systems, such as TomToms and Garmins.
Since the law prohibits cellphone use only by drivers, passengers in vehicles are free to use these devices to read emails or watch YouTube videos as a vehicle moves.
“But remember: The viewing of electronic devices within the vehicle is still illegal for drivers,” Lillard said.
You can be pulled over
Police officers won’t need a separate violation in order to pull you over for using a cellphone.
“This is a primary offense,” Seraphin said. “If you are a driver with a phone up against your ear, that is a violation of the law.”
Motorists found violating the law will be given traffic tickets, just like for speeding. Fines can be as high as $75 for the first offense and as much as $150 for repeated offenses, Lillard noted. That’s in addition to a moving violation being added to their driving records.
Three moving violations within a year can lead to the suspension of driving privileges.
And starting Wednesday, drivers who injure others in traffic crashes involving the use of a cellphone or other electronic device could face a Class A misdemeanor charge, which could lead to fines of up to $2,500 and less than a year of jail time.
Drivers involved with fatal crashes involving the use of a cellphone or other electronic device could be charged with a Class 4 felony, which carries fines of up to $25,000 and up to three years in jail.
Watching for violators
Seraphin said motorists in Urbana don’t have to worry about police using electronic devices to detect whether a cellphone is in use.
“There are not any electronic James Bond spy devices to tell us whether a cellphone is being used in a vehicle,” Seraphin said. “At the end of the day, police officers will detect cellphone use by watching to see if a phone is up against the ear of a driver.”
Seraphin said Urbana police might use the same method it has during seat-belt details.
“We have someone in plain clothes looking to see if seat belts are being used, and the information is relayed to the patrol officers,” he said. “Something like that might be a possibility for checking on cellphone use.”
Meanwhile, Champaign police will have discretion as to whether to issue a ticket or a warning, Gallo said.
“We have already been enforcing the law against using cellphones in school zones,” Gallo said.
While the state police aren’t specifying how they plan to enforce the cellphone law, Lillard said “officer discretion will be used.”
Authorities aren’t counting on AT&T, Verizon and the like to help compile evidence against routine violators of the law.
State police, however, can obtain cellphone records in the event of a crash or significant incident, especially those resulting in great bodily harm or death, Lillard said.
“The information from the cellphone can be downloaded for purposes of the investigation,” he said. “The driver may also give consent. If no consent is given, the cellphone may be held by police until a warrant is obtained.”
In case of emergency
What about the use of cellphones for nontalking applications? For example, many drivers use smartphone apps as GPS devices to help them find locations.
“If a driver is using a smartphone for the purpose of a navigation device, the navigation device needs to be in voice mode,” Lillard said. “Touching the screen and recalculating routes while driving is illegal.”
Police will, however, make exceptions in emergency situations — to report a fire, an accident or worse.
“For example,” Seraphin said, “if your daughter is attacked and she is taken hostage by a bad guy and you call 911, that would be an appropriate use of the phone.”
In addition, Lillard said, drivers who pull over to use their phone while parked on the shoulder of a roadway are not in violation.
“However, motorists should only use the shoulder of an interstate highway for emergency stopping only, not for making cellphone calls,” she said.
Lillard anticipates that driver’s education classes in area schools will teach students about the new law.
But teenagers aren’t the only ones who need to be educated when it comes to the topic.
“The bottom line is people need to pay attention when they are driving, whether it be using a cellphone or eating or doing something else,” said University of Illinois Police Lt. Matt Myrick. “Usually when a driver is distracted, that’s when bad things happen.”