In an effort to reduce distracted driving, the Illinois Tollway is slated to erect “Safe Phone Zone” signs in April — designating six oases where drivers can pull off the road and safely use their cellphones.
The signs will direct drivers to the Lake Forest, O’Hare, Hinsdale and South Holland oases on the Tri-State Tollway (I-94/I-294/I-80), as well as oases on the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway (I-90) in Belvidere and one along the the Reagan Memorial Tollway (I-88) in DeKalb.
The signs should go up in about three weeks, said Wendy Abrams, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Tollway — which maintains and operates 286 miles of interstate tollways in 12 counties in Northern Illinois.
“You can’t just have an educational approach, or a law enforcement approach to combat distracted driving,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, a trade group that represents highway safety agencies.
“You have to have engineering as well, and that’s what this is, because by creating these Safe Phone Zones it acknowledges that drivers need or want to communicate while on trips.”
The zones will be inside oasis pavilions and will offer seating and free Wi-Fi. “It’s not a magic bullet, but it’s part of the solution,” Adkins said.
Travelers Marketing coordinated the Safe Phone Zone program with the Illinois Tollway and helped coordinate sponsorships. The Massachusetts-based marketing firm has set up similarly sponsored Safe Phone Zones in Arizona and Virginia in recent years.
The program also comes 18 months after the state of New York introduced 91 “Texting Zones” which, which are not affiliated with sponsoring companies.
Data showing the effectiveness of such programs in reducing the amount of distracted driver crashes is hard to obtain, Adkins said.
“It’s really difficult because the first thing you’re going to do after an accident is put your phone away,” Adkins said. “We know the numbers are significant, but it’s underreported.”
The new Illinois program is sponsored by Verizon Wireless and iStar Financial Inc.
Officials from the Illinois Department of Transportation — which oversees nearly 20,000 miles of roadway — were not available Monday to comment on whether any similar programs are in place or in works. April is officially designated as National Distracted Driving Awareness Month.
Illinois law bans texting, as well as using a cellphone while driving. However, drivers 19 and older are permitted to use a hands-free device while operating a vehicle, according to the Illinois Department of Motor Vehicles website.
A new study by Texas A&M University shows, on average, a 7-percent reduction in crash-related hospitalizations in states that have enacted texting bans.