Is Illinois' Texting And Driving Crackdown Working?

NBC 5 Investigates looks at tickets issued for violations of the texting and driving ban in 28 suburbs, the city, and by state police, and found a divergent set of results

It was a day like any other for Reggie Shaw. The then 19-year old Utah man was driving to work, with one hand on the wheel and the other on the phone. That was a routine he says he never questioned, until he texted one word that took two lives.

"I went across the center line, hit another car. Both were killed on impact," Shaw says.

Shaw is one of the sad legion of driver-survivors whose lives are also shattered by texting and driving accidents.

"I was not hurt, I was okay. To be honest, that's something that I struggle with. I wish it would have been me," Shaw says.

After his accident, Shaw's home state of Utah passed a ban on texting and driving, as have 42 other states. But a dozen states, including Illinois, went a step further. The handheld ban here started on January and is among the country's strictest. But NBC 5 Investigates wondered if anyone is paying attention? A quick look around proved it's easy to spot drivers texting. If they're not taking it seriously, are police?

We found the answer depends on where you live. Through the Freedom Of Information Act, we looked at tickets issued for violation of the ban in 28 suburbs, the city, and by state police. The results were very divergent:

In Palatine, for example, police started gently. In January they issued 151 warnings but only 26 tickets. By March, those numbers flipped: 31 warnings versus ten times that number in citations.

Arlington Heights skipped the warnings all together and in January went straight to ticketing, issuing 90 in the first month. Hoffman Estates went easy in January, but threw the book at drivers in February and March, issuing 630 - the highest suburban totals we found.

In Evanston, we were surprised at the city's low number of tickets issued on the statewide ban , until police explained they use a different weapon.

"It's been well over $100,000 over the several years the ordinance has been enacted," explains Evanston Police Commander Jay Parrott. Evanston has had a handheld ban in place since 2010 and in the past three months alone, issued more than 500 tickets.

Chicago also tickets on both its own ordinance and the state law, issuing 902 tickets in the first three months of this year.

The most generous place to get caught is Schaumburg, which handed out seven time more warnings than tickets in the first three months of the law. Perhaps the most lenient with tickets: Oak Lawn, where police cited just one driver for violating the ban in the entire month of March. A police spokesperson in Oak Lawn says police there continue to give verbal warnings, or issue citations for other infractions after being pulled over for using a handheld device while driving.

We asked State Chiefs of Police Executive Director John Kennedy if Illinois is off to a good start, three months in to the new law.

"A lot of communities have given grace periods to allow people to get familiar with the law , but I think that will increase as time goes by, " Kennedy says. "The end game is not to have anyone use cell phones are texting while driving."

Kennedy sees parallels with the seatbelt law, which when first passed met resistance, but is now credited with saving countless lives.

"There's over 5,000 deaths a year attributed to distracted driving," Kennedy said. "It's a public health issue and it needs to be addressed."

Six years after his accident, Reggie Shaw completed his jail sentence and his mandatory educational speaking tour, but has no plans to stop talking.

"I took two men's lives. How do you get that back? You don't," Shaw says.

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