Paying the price for texting while driving

We’ve all seen the statistics. Every year, cell phone use behind the wheel causes far too many accidents injuries and deaths. In fact, according to the National Safety Council it accounts for as many as 1.6 million crashes every year, injuring close to 400,000 people. One of those distracted driving accidents, which occurred in western Illinois, led to legislation in the spring session of the General Assembly to enact tougher penalties for accidents caused by distracted driving.

“It is against the law to text while driving, but that doesn’t seem to stop people,” said State Representative Norine Hammond (R-Macomb) who sponsored legislation to increase the penalties on those whose use of an electronic device results in an accident in which great bodily harm is done to another person.

“It is my hope that by increasing the fine dramatically from the $75 it is now, we can get drivers to think twice before looking down,” the Assistant House Minority Leader from western Illinois said.

Hammond’s bill, House Bill 2386, came about after a tragic accident in her district in which a motorist who was texting behind the wheel struck a victim and caused him to lose a leg. In spite of the serious injury to the victim, existing law only allowed at most a $75 fine for the distracted driver’s use of his cell phone during the accident, in addition to being eligible for a Class A Misdemeanor.

Under the legislation Hammond sponsored, in the case of an accident where a victim suffers great bodily harm, a distracted driver could have his or her license suspended for a year and face a minimum fine of $1,000 for use of a cell phone, and potentially other penalties as well. The bill quickly gained the support of the Illinois Sheriff’s Association and the Secretary of State.

“If you text and drive and injure someone, by causing bodily harm, you will have to pay a price for your decision. It’s my intent to make people think twice before they pick up their phone,” Hammond said.

Hammond’s bill passed the House 82-24-2 on April 10, but not before some critics objected to the degree to which the bill raised the penalty for a distracted driver injuring a victim.

“There were members in the House that were not all that inspired and felt it was too egregious a fine,” Hammond told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I said ‘is there really a price you can put on someone that loses their life or limb?’”

In the Senate, the bill was sponsored by Sen. Jil Tracy (R-Quincy). Tracy said the severity of the injuries sustained by the victim of the accident in their shared district highlighted a need for change in the existing law.

“When we initially enacted the first bill about texting it had a graduated series of offenses and I don’t think it was thought through that what do we do if there is bodily harm and certainly we have comparable offenses in our driver’s vehicle’s code,” Tracy told WGIL radio.

“There’s never a time when a person is driving a car that a text can’t wait,” Tracy added.

The legislation passed the Senate 41-0 on May 16 and went to the desk of Governor J.B. Pritzker, who signed it on July 19. The new law will become effective on July 1, 2020.