From tens of thousands to hundreds
Distracted driving remains a low priority for the Chicago Police Department, a consequence of less manpower and changes to city ordinances, according to Tribune Transportation Columnist Mary Wisniewski.
Wisniewski made appearances on WGN Radio and WBEZ this morning to discuss the huge drop off in the number of citations being doled out by the CPD for things like texting while driving. In 2015, nearly 26,000 distracted driving tickets were written, compared to 46,000 in 2014. In 2016, the CPD wrote just 186 tickets.
“They’ve all but given up on enforcing this particular city ordinance,” Wisniewski said on WGN’s The John Williams Show, prompting host John Williams to ask why. Wisniewski explained:
In 2015, there was a change in the law that made police treat citations under the cell phone ordinance the same as other moving violations, which means that [officers] now have to go to traffic court and appear when the person who’s going up there with their ticket is appearing. [Officers] used to be able to not appear and the tickets could be upheld without them.
Wisniewski also pointed out that the CPD now employs fewer officers and that the department is placing stronger emphasis on other areas of law enforcement, like guns and gang violence. Still, she continued, the CPD hopes to make distracted driving a priority in the future.
The U.S. has experienced an influx of crashes over the last two years, including a 14 percent jump in auto-related fatalities nationally—the highest in almost half a century. Officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration attribute at least some of that to distracted driving.
The people who are experts on this said that people are very complacent about distracted driving. Everyone thinks they can do it safely. Everyone thinks, ‘well, I made it home okay, I must be a great driver.’
One of the ways that we can change that is through technology. One of things I brought up in my article is a technology that a company’s working on called a textalizer, which will be able to look at your phone’s operating system after you’ve been in a crash. You’ll be able to plug in your phone and see if you were just texting or on the phone.
Williams countered by saying that while a textalizer might be a good thing, it still wouldn’t prevent people from doing something bad in the first place, would it?
Do we need stronger penalties?
As we’ve outlined here on the blog, and as Wisniewski illustrated to Williams, the key to prevent distracted driving may be imposing stricter penalties to deter people from doing it at all.
Driving Under the Influence is considered a class A misdemeanor in Illinois for first and second-time offenders. Some instances qualify as a felony, which carries much stiffer penalties, including hefty fines and extended jail time.
Organizations like the Brain Injury Society go as far as to say that texting while driving is the equivalent of drinking four beers, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said that the two are similar as far as the level of distraction. As it stands, Chicago and other cities and states could benefit by qualifying the word “impairment” to cover a much broader scope of infractions. One hopes that doing so would effectively scare people straight.