RANTOUL — Ask any driver if he or she would be willing to drive blind the length of a football field, and the answer would undoubtedly be: NO.
That's what reading or sending a text message is like, according to Rantoul police Officer Kurtis Buckley.
Buckley, who is the school resource officer at Rantoul Township High School, said there is great concern about the growing distractions facing drivers — distractions that put not only the driver and passengers in jeopardy, but also other drivers.
"Sending or receiving a text message takes the driver's eyes off the road for a period of 4.6 seconds," Buckley said.
That's why Buckley and Rantoul Police Sgt. Justin Bouse have started a distracted-driving campaign this year at RTHS.
Their message: No text is so important that it can't wait until you pull off the road or get to where you're going.
In 2010, more than 3,000 people were killed and another 416,000 injured in U.S. crashes involving distracted drivers.
The problem is present with all drivers, but especially with young drivers.
Since 2010, Rantoul police have issued 159 tickets or warning tickets for drivers using a cellphone or texting, most of them in a school zone.
While texting gets the most attention, there are any number of things that can distract a driver, including talking on the phone, eating and drinking, talking with other passengers, reading maps, changing the radio station or CD player and using navigation devices.
Texting, however, appears to be the biggest problem because it distracts a driver three different ways.
"The first is visual, taking your eyes off the road," Buckley said. "Then there's the manual, taking your hands off the wheel. And then there's cognitive, taking your mind off the task of driving."
All of those are involved when texting in a moving vehicle.
"The other day I saw a guy using his knee to steer and he was texting," Buckley said. "He was swerving. It was very noticeable."
Making cellphone usage even more distracting these days is that many people are searching the Internet.
As part of driver's education classes, Buckley gives a Power Point presentation on distracted driving. He said the teens seem to be receptive to the message: Keep your cellphone away from your eyes while driving.
"Basically we're educating the kids and getting the word out that distracted driving is a problem.
"About 90 percent of these kids have cellphones," Buckley said. "Without their cell phones it's almost like taking oxygen from them."
During student registration this year at RTHS, Bouse and Buckley set up a table that provided information to parents and students about distracted driving. Getting parents involved is important, Buckley said.
In Illinois, it's against the law to use a cellphone in a work zone and in a school zone, and texting while driving is outlawed at all times.
With the help of some local insurance companies and the high school, Buckley said six signs have been posted around the high school warning drivers not to use cellphones there.
Buckley also has a school resource officer page on Facebook where he has posted a great deal of information about distracted driving.
The police department routinely patrols before and after school at all of Rantoul's schools, and officers are watching out for people texting and on the phone.
In years past, police in Illinois could not stop someone simply for illegal cellphone use, but that is no longer the case, Buckley said. If an officer sees someone using a cellphone in a school or work zone or texting anywhere while driving, the driver can be pulled over.
Buckley said people's attitudes need to change so that they realize the dangers of distracted driving.
"We're trying to do whatever we can to change the mindset," he said, "so that people can understand you're basically playing Russian roulette driving down the street and you're distracted."
Buckley knows what he'd like to see: "I think it would be a good idea to ban cellphone usage as you're driving except in emergency circumstances like contacting the police."
If cellphone usage were banned, it likely would result in less need to call the police. There would be fewer accidents. Buckley would like nothing better.