After meeting with clients who have been critically injured or whose family members have been killed in accidents caused by distracted drivers taking on their cell phone, texting, or surfing the internet using their “smartphones,” our Chicago truck accident attorneys have written in great detail about the dangers of distracted driving. Yet, in the latest area government failure, the city council of Park Ridge voted last Monday against a measure that would have put in place an ordinance banning drivers from using cell phones that are not hands-free. We are profoundly disappointed.
Park Ridge, a suburb in northern Cook County, Illinois, follows procedures where a majority vote of aldermen is required to advance any measure or ordinance to the full city council. The measure banning non-hands-free cell phone use, unfortunately, failed on a tie vote. The three aldermen opposing the measure stated that they believed such a measure would be either unenforceable or selectively enforced. Our personal injury lawyers take issue with this reasoning, since the City of Chicago and federal government (with respect to commercial truck drivers) has already passed similar bans.
Shockingly, Alderman James Allegretti based his vote against the measure on an illogical rejection of the facts demonstrating the dangers of distracted driving. After the vote, Alderman Allegretti specifically stated his disbelief of the studies demonstrating that driving while using a handheld cellphone is as dangerous as driving drunk. He stated that, “People pull these things out of who knows where. I don’t know that these statistics are valid.”
Alderman Allegretti should be ashamed of letting his own ignorance stand in the way of critical safety legislation. The study to which he refers looked at the rate of accidents among drivers using a handheld cellphone, and found that accidents occur four times as frequently when a handheld cellphon is used. They also looked at accident data involving drunk driving, and found that drivers who are intoxicated also have an accident rate about four times greater than sober drivers. People, Alderman Allegretti included, simply choose to believe that, because these two behaviors “feel” very different to them, they cannot have the same result. Perhaps this is why 81% of Americans still persist in this behavior. But an individual’s uninformed opinion of the risks simply cannot change the data.
The Aldermen who supported the measure, by contrast, are well informed. The measure itself cites a 2008 study by the National Traffic Safety Institute, a 2006 study by the University of Utah, and the related comments of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. These Aldermen also have anecdotal evidence of the dangers of distracted driving. One of them, Alderman Donald Bach, stated that he was nearly struck on his way to the meeting at City Hall by a woman driving while talking on a handheld cell phone.
This inaction is particularly frustrating as the measure itself, which should be staightforward and noncontroversial, has been under debate for nearly nine months. And the City Council did not even take independent action in starting the debate: a resident, Stephanie Kunz, had to ask them to consider such action. Ms. Kunz should be proud of her concern and initiative. The council should be chagrined that it was required.
At the same time, the city council considered a resolution asking the Illinois general assembly to pass a statewide law banning cell phone use that is not hands-free. This measure also failed on a tie vote. Interestingly, however, the Aldermen supporting each of the two rejected measures opposed the other. Alderman Robert Ryan, who supported the local ordinance but voted against the resolution seeking action in Springfield, explained his position with words that ring true to many: “I don’t expect our state to take a leadership position on a whole lot of stuff right now.”
Springfield might soon be fiscally motivated to take action, however. The Senate Commerce Committee recently entertained legislation, called the Distracted Driving Prevention Act, which would provide grants to states who enact state legislation banning texting and the use of handheld cellphones, and the use of any cellphones by those under 18. Chicago auto accident attorneys have previously urged the Senate to pass this legislation as soon as possible, and continue in our support of the bill, and of state action regardless of whether the federal bill is passed.
There is still some hope for both failed Park Ridge measures. One Alderman, Thomas Carey, was absent from last Monday’s meeting. Thus, with his support the measures could potentially be revived and advanced to the council.
Park Ridge is, sadly, not alone in its inaction on this crucial issue. Very few Illinois municipalities have taken action to ban driving while talking on a cell phone. Among those that have are Chicago itself, as well as Evanston and Winnetka. There is now, however, a state ban on driving while texting, which is at least a step in the right direction.
Regardless of the enforceability of such laws, they are absolutely crucial. First and foremost, their passage sends a powerful message, and may help to deter distracted driving. Additionally, however, the presence of such laws on the books makes it easier for the victims of distracted driving to obtain compensation in a civil action. It is important that victims of car accidents caused by distracted drivers bring such actions, and with competent, experienced counsel such as the attorneys at Passen & Powell. Perhaps, if enough verdicts are won, drivers will begin to take notice and put down their smartphones.
For a free consultation with an experienced Chicago personal injury lawyer at Passen & Powell, call us at (312) 527-4500.