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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Distracted Drivers Task Force Report

Earlier this month, the Illinois Distracted Drivers Task Force made its recommendations (PDF file) to curb accidents causes by distracted drivers, including cell phone users.

The task force was created, at least in part, because of the 2006 death of Urbana cyclist Matt Wilhelm, who was killed when he was struck by a car driven by a woman downloading a cell phone ring tone.

Legislators have been attempting to toughen distracted driving laws after Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz was unable to charge the driver with anything more than a traffic offense. Rietz had considered reckless homicide charges against the driver, but she determined that the offense did not fit the "willful and wanton" definition of reckless homicide as now defined by state law.

Here's a summary of the task force's recommendations:
  • Making it unlawful for a driver to operate a motor vehicle while engaging in either creating, sending or reading a text message. The only exception to this law would be in the case of an emergency situation.
  • Establishment of the offense of Negligent Vehicular Operation. This law would provide that a person commits the offense if the person’s negligent operation of a motor vehicle is the proximate cause of a crash (without inflicting bodily harm). A person acts negligently within the meaning of the provision if he or she fails to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk of death or injury to others, and that failure constitutes a substantial deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would exercise under the circumstances. First-time offenders would receive a standard, points assigned, moving violation ticket.
  • Establishment of the offense of Aggravated Negligent Vehicular Operation. This law would provide that a person commits the offense if the person’s negligent operation of a motor vehicle is the proximate cause of a personal injury to an individual or property damage exceeds $500. A person acts negligently within the meaning of the provision if he fails to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk of death or injury to others, and that failure constitutes a substantial deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would exercise under the circumstances. This offense will be classified as a Class A misdemeanor and may be subject to a jail sentence of 0-12 months, up to a $2,500 fine and a one-year revocation of driving privileges.
  • Establishment of the offense of Negligent Vehicular Homicide. This law would provide that a person commits the offense if the person’s negligent operation of a motor vehicle is the proximate cause of the death of another person. A person acts negligently within the meaning of the provision if he fails to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk of death or injury to others, and that failure constitutes a substantial deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would exercise under the circumstances. This offense will be classified as a Class 4 felony and will subject the individual to a jail sentence of 1 to 3 years, up to a $25,000 fine and revocation of driving privileges for no less than one year.
  • House Joint Resolution 10 (HJR 10), currently under consideration by the Illinois General Assembly, requires that police reports include an indication as to whether an automobile crash involved the use of a cellular phone and directs the Illinois Department of Transportation to compile statistics from state, county, and municipal law enforcement agencies related to cellular phone use and automobile crashes. The Distracted Drivers Task Force recommends the passage of HJR 10 and that the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) publish crash statistics regarding the relationship between the use of cell phones and other methods of distracted driving and motor vehicle crashes for two calendar years (rather than one) based on the statistical analysis of this report. The Distracted Drivers Task Force further recommends that the statistics be compiled and reported by IDOT to the members of the Illinois General Assembly, the Office of the Governor and the Office of the Secretary of State within three months of the completion of the study. The study would be reviewed by the above entities in order to identify any trends, positive or negative, in consideration of further legislation regarding the use of cellular phones and the operation of a motor vehicle.
The recommendation of the new offenses did get some opposition from one member of the task force. Ed Maloney, representing the Illinois State Bar Association, was concerned about the definition of negligence being used by the task force. He simply wants the current Illinois reckless driving statute to be updated to include specific wording about the use of electronic devices, a stand the Chicago Tribune agreed with in a recent editorial.

I know there are some folks out there who think laws like these would be creating a "nanny state", but I'm of the mindset that people need to punished when they engage in careless driving that kills or injures another user of the roads, whether it be a cyclist, motorist or pedestrian.

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