Solutions lacking for drop in ticketing for distracted driving
July 9, 2017

By Igor Studenkov

“Distracted driving” has become a dangerous problem in recent years. (Courtesy Glatfelter Healthcare)

Earlier this year, Ald. Edward Burke (14th Ward) raised alarm about the number of Chicago drivers ticketed for driving while texting plummeting in 2016, even while there was no evidence that the actual instances of driving while texting had diminished.

In the wake of these revelations, Burke and Ald. Anthony Beale (9th Ward) co-sponsored a resolution that would require the Chicago Police Department to use the stillin-development “textalyzer” technology, which would theoretically allow police officers to see if the driver was using his or her phone to text without seeing the texts themselves.

In the three months since the resolution was introduced, there has been little movement. The resolution has been sent to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee.

While the committee was originally supposed to schedule a hearing on the issue in the early summer, as of this writing no such hearing has been scheduled.

Meanwhile, the City launched its Vision Zero Action Plan, a three year plan designed to reduce traffic accidents. While it does address texting while driving, it is a relatively small part of the plan – and nothing there addresses the reduced number of citations.

In 2013, the Illinois General Assembly passed a law that prohibited drivers from using an “electronic communication device” to write, read, and send “electronic messages.”

To accommodate for changes in technology, the language was deliberately broad. “Electronic communication device” could encompass a phone, a mobile computer, and most other devices that can send and receive messages.

The law did carve out some exceptions. It did not apply to law enforcement officials on duty, drivers who used a messaging function to report an emergency situation, drivers who used the device hands-free, drivers parked or stopped on a shoulder, or drivers stuck in traffic – with the latter only applying if the vehicle’s transmission is in neutral or parked.

Anybody caught texting while driving would be fined up to $75 for the first offense, $100 for a second offense, $125 for a third offense, and $150 for all of the subsequent offenses. The first offense does not count as a moving violation.

Penalties for texting and driving

If texting while driving results in a collision that causes another person “great bodily harm, permanent disability, or disfigurement,” the offender would be charged with a Class A misdemeanor. If convicted, he or she could face up to 364 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,500. If the collision leaves another person dead, the offender can be charged with a Class 4 felony, facing up to three years in prison.

Texting and driving involves visual, manual, and mental distractions. (Courtesy National Safety Inc.)

Since then, there have been some attempts to change the law, but none of them stuck. On Feb. 26, 2015, Illinois State Representative Thomas Bennett (R-106th) introduced a bill to study the impact of the law. On the same day, State Representative Robert Martwick (D-9th) introduced a bill that would stiffen the penalty for crashes that cause another person’s death. It would have reclassified the offense as a Class 2 felony, which carries a prison term of three-to-seven years. It would also require the driver to do at least 480 hours of community service if he or she receives probation.

Both bills died in committee.

More recently, on Jan 11, 2017, the Illinois State Senate proposed a package of changes to existing property tax and school district regulations, which included requiring Drivers’ Education classes to teach students about how distracted driving was a major issue.

As of this writing, the bill still needs to get its final reading in the State Senate before it can be voted on by the Illinois House of Representatives and go to the governor’s desk.

In 2014, the year the law took effect, there were 45,594 citations issued in Chicago. The number plummeted to 186 in 2016. Only 24 tickets were issued in the first three months of 2017. On Sept. 3, 2015, the Chicago Police Department changed its citation policy to go along with a State law change that electronic device violations be treated like other traffic violations, requiring police to go to traffic court, which had not been the case previously. The number of citations police wrote subsequently plummeted.

Federation of Police spokesperson and Second Vice President Martin Preib told Gazette Chicago he had not heard about the issue and did not know if the number of tickets issued had decreased, so he did not want to say anything that would be “purely speculative.”

Burke, who chairs the City Council’s Finance Committee, expressed alarm about the numbers, saying that they suggest lax enforcement.

“Our nation is in the grips of a texting epidemic and drivers text with impunity because they think there is little chance of ever getting caught,” he stated. Beale, who chairs the City Council’s Transportation Committee, said, “Everywhere you look on Chicago streets and on expressways, drivers are texting. Such illegal activity not only poses a serious threat to other motorists, but also to the many cyclists who regularly use our network of bike lanes and to pedestrians at crosswalks.”

Textalyzer technology

On April 19, the two aldermen co-sponsored their resolution about the textalyzer technology. The technology is being developed by Cellebrite Mobile Synchronization, a data extraction and analysis company based in Petah Tikva, Israel. The device is still in prototype stage. However, as Burke’s and Beale’s resolution notes, this has not stopped New York and Tennessee state governments from considering similar bills.

The resolution also calls for Chicago Police Department representatives to appear before the Committee on Public Safety to testify about the technology.

The ordinance would allow CPD to use the footage from Chicago red light cameras as evidence that drivers texted while driving. Donal Quinlan, a spokesperson for Burke and the Finance Committee, told Gazette Chicago that the alderman is still waiting for a hearing to happen.

According to the Chicago City Clerk’s website, the Public Safety Committee has not scheduled any future meetings or hearings as of this writing.

That is not to say the City of Chicago has not done anything to address traffic issues. On June 12, it officially unveiled the Vision Zero Action Plan, an inter-agency plan designed to reduce the number of traffic accidents throughout Chicago.

Among other things, it looks to discourage dangerous driving behaviors, with cell phone use while driving listed as one of the five behaviors that cause 72% of fatal crashes. However, while the plan goes into great length about what the City would do to address speeding, it does not go as far to address the other four behaviors.

It calls for launching two marketing campaigns – one to increase awareness of the causes of the fatal crashes, and one to encourage drivers to change their behavior. It will also use data gathered from national and local sources to figure out the best responses to those behaviors, and how to see how the behaviors are perceived in the city. It would encourage drivers to take a Zero Vision Pledge, which calls for them to “keep hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, not on [their] phone.”

Police officers would be encouraged to use traffic stops as opportunities to educate drivers about unsafe behaviors. City departments and officials would organize community events, where officials would talk about dangerous behaviors witnesses in the communities and work with local residents to figure out the best way to address them.