Teen motorists mock plan to ban cell phone use
By Courtney Flynn, Meg McSherry Breslin and Erika Slife, Tribune staff reporters. Tribune staff reporters Ray Long, Susan Kuczka and M. Daniel Gibbard contributed to this report
May 27, 2005
Chris Karacic often talks on his cell phone while driving--whether chatting it up with friends about girls or letting his parents know what time he'll be home.
But under a measure recently passed by Illinois lawmakers, the 17-year-old Lake Forest High School senior would be banned from an activity that has become a virtual habit--not that he worries about it all that much.
"I don't think the cops are going to do anything about it," said Karacic, who vowed Thursday to keep using his cell phone while driving, law or no law. "I think it's dumb."
The proposal that would bar teens under the age of 18 from using a cell phone while driving rang up some strong objections from young drivers in the Chicago area such as Karacic, who admit they live to talk.
The bill, which passed the Senate 41-16 on Wednesday and the House last week, awaits Gov. Rod Blagojevich's signature.
"The governor will enthusiastically sign this bill," said Rebecca Rausch, a spokeswoman. "It's definitely a matter of public safety, and removing any distractions from our young and inexperienced drivers will result in safer roads."
Under the proposal, 16- and 17-year-old drivers would not be allowed to use cell phones--even with hands-free devices--while driving. Offenders would face fines of $25 to $50. The law would permit cell phone use in emergencies, and teen drivers could pull over to use their phones.
The Chicago City Council last month outlawed the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. Beginning in July, offenders of all ages can be fined $50. Hands-free devices will still be allowed.
Although the state bill's sponsor, Sen. John Cullerton (D-Chicago), admitted there is still controversy about whether cell phones--with or without hands-free equipment--dangerously distract drivers, he said teens don't need diversions while driving.
"We definitely know that young drivers, until they get experience, are the more dangerous drivers," Cullerton said. "They have a higher crash rate and a higher fatality rate. They don't need any distractions."
But Sen. Peter Roskam (R-Wheaton), who voted against the bill, said he wasn't persuaded by that argument. Any time a particular group such as teens is singled out, officials can come up with statistics to back up an argument, he said.
"Under current law, we trust teens to get behind the wheel of a potentially dangerous vehicle," he said. "I think we can trust them to make a good decision about whether a phone call is appropriate."
Drawing out negative opinions from teens regarding the measure was about as easy Thursday as finding high school students who look forward to summer vacation.
"I think that's kind of silly. I don't see the difference in talking on the phone if you're over 18 or under," said Julie Phillips, 16, a junior at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, who has been driving almost a year.
"You'd have to ban eating and playing with the radio" for such a law to be effective, she said. "That's probably just as distracting as talking on the cell phone."
Many suburban teenagers questioned how the police would enforce such a ban.
"I don't think most cops will really pay attention," said Dave Scwiak, 17, a junior at Vernon Hills High School. He added that he probably will continue talking on his cell phone while driving even if the measure becomes law.
His friend, Matt Raupp, agreed.
"I'll definitely talk on my cell phone," said Raupp, 17, a junior at Vernon Hills High School.
Difficult to enforce
Although some law enforcement officials said they support any measure intended to reduce the accident rate, especially among young drivers, they concede enforcing the ban would be difficult.
"We don't know just by looking at someone if they're 16 or 17, so it's more likely that it would be enforced in conjunction with another law-enforcement issue," said Libertyville Police Chief Patrick Carey.
Elmhurst Police Chief Steve Neubauer said even though it would be tough for police to tell the age of a talking driver, the law would act as a deterrent, prompting parents to talk with their kids about cell phone use in cars. "This is a step in the right direction," he said.
Lenny Goldman, 16, a sophomore at Stevenson, has been driving one month and said he often uses his cell phone while behind the wheel. The phone has a speaker feature, so he usually drives with it in his lap--often while looking for music on his iPod, which plays over the car stereo, he said.
The ban is probably a good idea, Goldman says, "but I wouldn't want it to pass."
Parents like the idea
Parents contacted Thursday generally said they loved the proposal.
Naperville's Marie O'Hara already worries about her 16-year-old daughter, who just got her driver's license. Recently, O'Hara said she stopped her from jumping in a Mustang convertible with other friends who were trying to perch themselves on the back top of the car with their feet on the seat.
A cell phone ban, she says, is just one more step toward forcing risk-taking teenagers to drive smarter and safer.
"I think this is a great thing. There's so many distractions in cars that they don't need one more. To talk on the cell phone is potentially very dangerous," O'Hara said.
Kim Gallagher of Clarendon Hills, whose daughter plans to get her license next year, said, "... the only downside to this is they're never going to be able to enforce it."
Barb Karacic of Lake Forest said she hopes her son, Chris, would not defy the ban. She said she strongly supported the proposed law and hoped it would go even further.
"I just think all people should use hand-free if they're going to use it at all," Karacic said. "It's just too distracting, it's too dangerous, and it's just really hazardous out there."