Highland Park police send clear message about enforcing cell-phone-driving law
Highland Park PoliceDet Sean Gallagher talks to a driver about her cell phone use while driving. The HP Police Dept. performed an educational service on Central St. by giving tickets to motorists who were speaking on their cellphones on Wednesday, July 25 2012, in Highland Park. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media
EDUCATION AND ENFORCEMENT
Time: 3-6 p.m. July 24 and 25
Zone: Central Business District, from Green Bay to Sheridan Road, between Elm Place and Laurel Avenue
Officers: On bikes in three- or four-person shifts
Outcome: 45 tickets and 16 warnings
Updated: September 3, 2012 12:35PM
HIGHLAND PARK — Circling the downtown business district on bikes for six hours last week, Highland Park police officers wrote 45 tickets and 16 warnings to motorists violating the city’s hands-free-while-driving ordinance.
Many more drivers slipped through the Police Department’s educational and enforcement zone — between Green Bay and Sheridan roads, from Elm Place to Laurel Avenue — without getting caught, narrowly avoiding the $120 fine.
“It’s been nonstop,” said Sgt. Jon Lowman during a short downtime between flagging down drivers at Central Avenue and Second Street. “The only thing slowing us down is the time to write the ticket.”
In fact, Lowman cut short the onsite interview seconds later to pull over a driver who took a phone call while stopped at a stop sign about 10 feet in front of him.
“I think they’re getting the message,” Lowman said when he returned to his post.
Few of those ticketed put up much of a fight, Lowman reported. The loudest feedback police received were “thank you” shout-outs from car windows of drivers who supported the safety initiative.
“Nobody likes getting a ticket, but those reactions don’t compare with all the drivers thanking us,” Lowman said. “They go, ‘Go get ’em.’”
Lowman said the most prevalent excuse from drivers last week was that they were holding their cell phones but were either on the speakerphone setting or were viewing navigation maps. Both of those are illegal uses anyway, Lowman reported.
Since Highland Park’s “hands-free” ordinance took effect last June, police officers have pulled over 1,025 drivers for the violation. All drivers caught with a cell phone to their ears face a $120 fine.
Violations also include text messaging; sending, reading or listening to electronic messages; and browsing the Internet. The city’s enhanced distracted driving ordinance classifies the offense as a primary violation, meaning police officers can pull over a driver for only the cell phone violation. The former secondary offense status required a separate moving violation before an officer could cite a driver for any form of distracted driving.
While more than 1,000 drivers have been pulled over, the department has been lenient by only issuing warnings in the vast majority of cases, especially during the first few months of the program last summer.
According to a Highland Park News review of cell phone ticket data, only 231 actual citations had been written as of July 23. Ticketing has been emphasized more of late, however, as 170 were written in the first seven months of 2012, compared to 61 tickets in the second half of last year.
The educational and enforcement tactic deployed last week is a signal that the Police Department is looking to send a message.
“We are looking to gain future compliance,” said Deputy Police Chief David Schwarz. “I think it opened some people’s eyes that these violations are going to be enforced.”
Now more than a year after the local ordinance was adopted, officers are less sympathetic to the excuse that drivers didn’t know the law was in place. For the enforcement initiative, police also put up warning signs at the entrances of the downtown business district.
“I think people are aware,” Schwarz said. “They know the law now, and just like the seat belt laws years ago, we need to get to the point where we have the compliance rate we have now with seat belts because this also is a safety issue.
“It’s not an equipment violation.”
More educational and enforcement zones will be set up in the future, Schwarz added.
“Hopefully people will be a little more aware in the business district because we have so many kids and people crossing the streets,” he said.