SPRINGFIELD-A bill to ban talking on hand-held cell phones while driving eked through the Illinois House Friday amid personal testimony and questions over enforcement of the measure.
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. John D'Amico (D-Chicago), passed through the House by a 64-46 vote and now moves to the Senate. State law already bans drivers from sending or reading text messages, but local municipalities have the right to completely prohibit using cell phones while driving.
"Seventy-six communities across the state of Illinois have this same exact legislation," D'Amico said. "As you're driving your car now, you don't know where you're breaking the law. I want to put everyone on an equal playing field."
But some members expressed concerns that police officers would have a difficult time discerning when drivers are actually in violation of the measure, and at least one Republican member thought the bill was too Big Brother-like.
"What about listening to ... the radio or shaving or eating McDonalds or having kids cry in the backseat?" asked Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R-Elmhurst). "There are so many things, we as a Legislature, can't say, 'Hey, we have to ban that practice.'"
Under the legislation, House Bill 1247, police officers and ambulance drivers would still be allowed to use their cell phones while "performing official duties." And everyday drivers could also use their phones when reporting emergencies; however, some legislators found the definition of "emergency" to be too vague.
Under current Illinois law, drivers under 19 years of age are completely banned from using cell phones while driving, and all drivers are prohibited from using them in construction zones and near certain emergency zones. Cell phones are also outlawed when driving commercial motor vehicles with the exception of emergency vehicles, military vehicles and RV's for personal use.
Drivers with hands-free, voice-operated or single-touch phones, including those with Bluetooth technology, would be exempt from the ban. And anyone parked on the shoulder of a road or sitting in traffic with their vehicle in neutral or park would be allowed to make calls or send text messages.
Even while the bill would allow drivers to use wireless cell phone technology, some members indicated people with hearing aides could be at a disadvantage.
"I truly believe that this kind of legislation is an absolute violation of the American Disabilities Act," Rep. Kay Hatcher (R-Yorkville) said. "I will continue to speak against hands-free because it's a greater danger to someone attempting to hear and lean forward and taking their eyes off the very road they're trying to navigate."
The mostly Republican resistance to the bill was met with personal testimony from the other side of the aisle. Rep. Cynthia Soto (D-Chicago) stood in support of the bill, saying she had once been stranded for two hours after being knocked off her bicycle by a driver who was on the phone.
"A bill like this is very important," she said. "I'd rather drive and pull over, stop and see what the issue is...than get in an accident."
Another member described a similar scenario that severely injured a loved one and said those opposed to the cell phone ban "don't understand."
"About three years ago, my husband was hit by someone who was distracted," Rep. Laura Fine (D-Glenview) said. "The driver crossed the center line and hit him head on, and my husband lost his left arm as a result of it."
"I really do believe that this will protect more families and save more lives than we can even imagine. People will adjust to it, people will get used to it, and it will save lives."
Still, at least one member held concerns over a possibility of increased racial profiling under the measure. Rep. Charles Jefferson (D-Rockford) called the legislation "an unfair bill" that is in essence "one more reason to get pulled over."
"We deal with this all the time in communities, where because of the way you look, because of the color of your skin [police are more likely to stop drivers]," said Jefferson, who is a member of the Black caucus.
A similar measure sponsored by D'Amico passed out of the House a year ago by a 62-53 vote, but the legislation, House Bill 3972, never made it out of the Senate.
"It's a huge distraction, and if we can correct it, save some lives and make the roads a little safer, we've got to do it," D'Amico said.