Special Segments

Distracted Drivers: They're putting you at risk

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Don't text while driving. It's a message we've all heard many times, but that does not stop everyone.

ABC 7's Paul Meincke teamed up with a state trooper to witness the danger and what's being done about it.

If you text while you drive, you are 29-times more likely to be involved in an accident. There have been many studies and many public safety campaigns that combine powerful emotion and an appeal to common sense.

There are laws banning texting while driving in Illinois and 38 other states but that law is broken all the time.

State Trooper Brian Spillane sees drivers texting incessantly.

Spillane watches the roads from his unmarked Tahoe. He sits in a high seat that can give him an angle to see fingers and thumbs dancing on a smartphone keypad.

"I've almost been sideswiped. I can't tell you. It happens two, three times a week," he said.

It's extremely dangerous when drivers have their pinkie and ring fingers clutching the steering wheel but both of their thumbs on the phone.

It's a $120 dollar ticket, in one case for a businessman who's trying to multi-task.

Drivers are banned from "composing, reading, or sending an electronic message" while driving in Illinois. Even if you're stopped at the light, it's a no-no, unless you've put the car in neutral or park.

Three years ago, State Trooper Starlena Wilson making a traffic stop on the Dan Ryan when a car plowed into her. The young motorist was texting.

"All of a sudden I hear the sound of screeching tires," Wilson said.

Her legs were broken and her pelvis shattered. She was off of work for a year.

It was a tough comeback and her life changed forever.

"I don't have the strength I had before but I'm very fortunate and very blessed and thank God every single day for giving me another chance," Wilson said.

There are real consequences, and powerful reminders, but they go only so far.

In the law's three years on the books in Illinois, there've been 3500 texting while driving convictions, a comparatively small number. The reality is enforcement is not easy because police have to catch people in the act.

"When you have people losing their lives on the roadway I think that as elected officials we have to do something to try and correct it," State Representative John D'Amico said.

D'Amico is the key sponsor of the "no texting while driving" law wants to go a step further and ban all handheld cellphone use by motorists. The measure did pass the House last year but wasn't called in the Senate.

It's up again with opposition.

"We have a tendency to push legislation through without thinking how it will have practical implications," State Representative Jim Durkin said.

Wherever the broader debate goes, we're back on the Kennedy as Trooper Spillane watches a driver looking up and down at her electronic device 14 times while driving 60 miles an hour.

There is plenty of this in less than two hours.

Spillane did issue some citations during our ride along but the majority of his stops resulted in warnings.

The logic is that if you're caught and own up to it, a strongly-worded warning might just be more effective than a ticket.

When mandatory seat belt usage began, compliance was very poor. Now it's better than 95-percent. Public safety advocates believe and hope that the texting while driving ban will undergo a similar evolution.

D'Amico's bill for a statewide ban on hand-held cellphone use in vehicles could be called for a full house vote as early as Thursday. He believes he has the votes.

(Copyright ©2014 WLS-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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