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House passes statewide ban on using cell phone while driving

Motorist use their cell phones while driving in Evanston on Tuesday, March 6, 2012. Their is a proposal being introduced that would ban all cellular telephone use while driving in the city, including bluetooth earpieces. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

SPRINGFIELD – In a new crackdown on distracted driving, the Illinois House voted Thursday to ban motorists from using hand-held cellphones in most instances while they’re driving.

“The time has come. We need to get serious about this and try to continue to make the roads in Illinois as safe as possible,” said Rep. John D’Amico (D-Chicago), the chief sponsor of the legislation.

His measure, which passed 62-53 and now moves to the Senate, would permit cellphones to be used while driving only if they’re in hands-free or voice-activated mode or if used with a headset.

The legislation also says drivers could use their hand-held phones if their vehicles are parked on the shoulder of the road or if they are “stopped due to normal traffic being obstructed” and the vehicles are in park or neutral.

Anyone caught breaking the law would be subject to a moving violation and an initial fine of $75, increasing to up to $150 for repeat offenders. Those penalties are stiffer than in Chicago, where motorists caught using hand-held cellphones face $100 fines but the violations do not show up on their driving records.

The plan would allow drivers to press only a single button – not a string of numbers – to initiate a call and to terminate a call. However, it would permit emergency phone calls.

The initiative had backing from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, Evanston, the National Safety Council, Verizon Wireless, police groups and the trucking industry.

If it ultimately gets to Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk and is signed, Illinois would join 10 other states with similar bans. In Illinois, 76 cities – Chicago, Evanston and Highland Park among them – already have some form of cellphone bans for motorists.

The National Transportation Safety Board has been pushing a crackdown like this after a series of phone-related accidents, including a deadly 2010 crash in Missouri where a pickup truck driver sent and received 11 text messages in 11 minutes before plowing into a slow-moving truck-tractor in a construction zone.

The pickup was then struck from behind by a school bus, which itself was hit by another school bus. The pileup left two people dead and 38 injured.

“The genesis of the bill is to save lives,” D’Amico said.

But critics rose up to complain that it violates personal liberties, could aggravate racial profiling and ignores other equally potent, behind-the-wheel distractions, like applying makeup or eating.

“Is there a bill that prohibits you from drinking a hot cup of coffee while you’re driving?” asked Rep. Charles “Chuck” Jefferson (D-Rockford), who voted against the measure. “I think a lot of people have been in accidents caused by coffee spilled on their lap.

“This is a another form of profiling. It gives police the ability to pull you over at their will,” Jefferson said.

On-duty police are exempted from the prohibitions.

Rep. Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs), another “no” vote, laid out an example where he could not help direct his wife over a hand-held cellphone if she was lost while driving.

“This is excessive. This is overregulation. I supported the ban on texting, but this goes way too far,” Durkin said.

The plan’s prospects in the Senate appear favorable since Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) has been a longtime highway safety advocate and helped pushed for mandatory seat-belt and child car-seat use.

Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said her boss had not reviewed the legislation, but he “does support this concept.”