Communities wrestle with how to curb distracted driving

Posted Oct. 14, 2011, at 8:17 p.m.

OAK PARK, Ill. — An arborist who travels throughout the Chicago area, Phil Fitch is in his car much of the work day, which means his automobile is often his dining car.

Fitch was chagrined Wednesday to learn that Oak Park, the community where he had stopped at a fast-food eatery for lunch, was considering a comprehensive crackdown on distracted drivers, banning everything from using a hand-held cell phone to grooming to eating while driving.

“I put 20,000 miles on my car every year,” said Fitch, 29, of Chicago. “I don’t really get a lunch break. I have to eat in my car every day.”

He insisted his reaction time is perhaps better — even while enjoying a sandwich behind the wheel — than an older driver without distractions.

Research suggests distracted drivers are involved in 80 percent of collisions or near-crashes, and governments big and small increasingly are addressing the concern by restricting cell phone use and other negligent conduct behind the wheel.

Oak Park is the latest community to target the issue, joining a handful of other Chicago-area communities that have looked at prohibiting a variety of driving distractions, from tending to pets and eating to cell phone use.

The issue of distracted driving — especially what constitutes a distraction — continues to gain momentum nationally. In the last two years, for example, the number of states that ban texting while driving has more than tripled to 34, including Illinois. Ten states and the District of Columbia have outlawed hand-held cell phone use while driving.

nd, six years ago, Chicago banned motorists from making cell calls without an earpiece, then added a prohibition on texting while driving. In 2009, the Chicago Transit Authority cracked down on bus and train operators who use or carry personal cell phones while working.

The campaign about the dangers of distracted driving has even started to target bicyclists. An ordinance proposed in Chicago would ticket riders found texting while pedaling.

If Oak Park ultimately passes an outright ban on eating while driving it might become one of the first in the nation to do so. Experts were unaware Wednesday of any community that already has such a law.

Oak Park Village Trustee Colette Lueck, who is initiating the push against distracted driving, said she would like to ban applying make-up or drinking, in addition to eating and cell phone use.

“To me, this is an issue of public safety,” she said. “This isn’t government overreach; this is the government protecting people. Distracted driving puts everyone on the road in danger.”

Trustee Ray Johnson, however, said he was more cautious in considering ticketing for eating or applying make-up. While he supports a texting ban, he said too many things can distract a driver — changing a CD, reaching for a drink or adjusting the volume on the radio — and designating a handful as illegal would be difficult.

“If you take it to the extreme, you could say having kids in the car is a distraction,” he said. “But what are you going to do? Some people have to have kids in the car.”

The problem with outlawing driving distractions beyond cell phone use is determining which activities relate directly to car crashes, said Russ Rader, vice president for communications at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety based in Arlington, Va.

“There’s no question that these things are distracting,” Rader said. “What we don’t know is how distracting they are compared to other things.” Cell phone use and crashes are relatively easy to track by checking cell phone records of drivers at the time of a collision, Rader said.

Verifying the link other distractions have to crashes is more complicated, he said. Still, some research suggests that one of the most common distractions in a car before it crashes is talking to a passenger, he said.

Car crashes continue to decrease in the U.S., Rader noted, even though cell phone use and other technologies — including sophisticated navigation and “info-tainment” systems — are becoming more prevalent. It remains unclear, he said, whether some recent benefit is off-setting the problem of distracted driving or whether the lower number of car crashes relates to “something else” that we haven’t been able to pinpoint.

“It points to an issue we’ve been raising for some time,” Rader said. “Distracted driving is much bigger than the cell phone.”

On her way into a Wendy’s restaurant Haj Herbert said she used to eat while driving in college, but stopped when she almost lost control of her car. She considers consuming food while driving more dangerous than driving distractions that are already illegal.

“It’s actually worse than using a cell phone,” said Herbert of Oak Park. “That only takes one hand, or none if you are using a hands-free device. Some people are using both hands” while eating and driving.

At Oak Park’s Tasty Dog, Jim Borchers expressed his disagreement, while he stood outside his truck sipping a soda after lunch. Borchers of St. Charles said he often eats in his car.

“I’m sure it’s a slight distraction, but it’s not a serious distraction,” he said. “You can eat a sandwich and still pay attention to the road.”

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