Put it down or pay up, city warns motorists
Starting July 8, drivers in Chicago who are caught talking on cell phones without hands-free devices face fines of $50 to $200
By Dan Mihalopoulos and John McCormick. Tribune staff reporter Gary Washburn contributed to this report
Tribune staff reporters.
Published May 12, 2005
Believing that cell phones have turned driving into a dangerous contortion act, the Chicago City Council on Wednesday voted to ban motorists from cradling phones in their hands while behind the wheel.
Starting July 8, motorists caught holding their Nokias, Motorolas and other brands to their ears while in motion will face a $50 fine. The penalty will jump to $200 in cases where cell phone conversations cause accidents.
Drivers will still be allowed to gab in their car as long as they use a speakerphone, earbud or other device that allows them to keep both hands on the wheel.
Sprint and Verizon Wireless, two major cellular service providers, opposed the measure, but Mayor Richard Daley said he was for it.
"It's just common sense," Daley said. "You don't want anybody killed or injured. You have enough accidents on the roads of America."
Chicago becomes the second major U.S. city after Washington to approve such a measure. There also are statewide prohibitions against driving while gripping cell phones in New York and New Jersey.
Ald. Burton Natarus (42nd) introduced the idea to the council six years ago. He said the push gained backers after tragic incidents triggered by drivers who were holding cell phones to their ears.
Accident victim's son `elated'
A Chicago traffic control aide, Maureen Tarara, was struck and seriously injured last year by a car driven by a woman allegedly on a cell phone. Tarara was disabled.
Tarara's son, who waged a campaign for the ban, said he was "elated" by the council's action, although he wanted the city to forbid all cell phone use in cars, even with ear pieces.
"The fellow that was sitting in back of me [during the council meeting] was the son of the crossing guard that got hit at State and Randolph [Streets]," Natarus told reporters after the vote. "So you tell him ... why we can't pass an ordinance such as this."
Natarus, who has a flair for the dramatic, has taken to constantly wearing a wireless hands-free device in his left ear as he walks about City Hall and at public events around town. The Motorola wireless headset was firmly planted in the veteran alderman's ear throughout Wednesday's meeting.
The vote came without any debate Wednesday after Natarus employed a parliamentary maneuver to pass the ordinance without explicitly mentioning what issue was being considered.
Several foes of the ban cried foul, saying they did not realize what had happened until it was too late. The opponents "were asleep at the switch," said Ald. Edward Burke (14th), who backed the phone ban.
Officially, the vote was recorded as 47-0 in favor of the ban.
Natarus' maneuver enabled him to extract a measure of revenge against critics who held up a vote on the ordinance at the last council meeting in April.
"I tell you what, I've got a sore throat today and I really didn't feel like debating," said Natarus, who has rarely shied from voicing his thoughts--usually at great length--during his 34 years as alderman.
Even if there had been a more straightforward vote, the ordinance would likely have passed. More than 40 of the 50 aldermen had signed on as supporters, and even detractors said they were unlikely to muster more than five or 10 votes against the proposal.
Critics largely came from wards on the edges of the city. Those aldermen said drivers going back and forth across the zigzagging city limits would become confused and could be targeted by police.
"My children attend St. Eugene's," said Ald. Brian Doherty, whose 41st Ward is on the city's Northwest Side. "It is bordered by unincorporated Norwood Park, Norridge, Harwood Heights, Chicago and Park Ridge."
If parents picking up and dropping off their children "cross Foster [Avenue], if they cross Canfield [Avenue], or they cross Touhy [Avenue], they are in a different jurisdiction," Doherty noted. "If they get a ticket for driving on the phone, who do you think is going to get the phone call? I am."
Natarus said he would lobby lawmakers in Springfield to take the ban statewide.
Ald. Richard Mell (33rd) said he uses a hands-free cell phone in his car as a matter of choice but a prohibition on hand-held use "doesn't make a lot of sense."
More problematic than talking on the phone are drivers who simultaneously are taking notes on a dashboard pad of paper, "balancing a cup of coffee on one knee and driving with one hand," Mell said.
Burke and Ald. Patrick O'Connor (40th) recently introduced a measure that also would expressly forbid a host of other activities while driving, including "performing personal grooming," reading and eating.
Ample support on the street
An informal survey of Chicagoans on Wednesday found ample support for the council's decision.
Mark Gruen, a Chicago businessman, purchased a wireless headset with a new phone he ordered. "My gearshift always gets tangled up with the cord," he said.
Georgia Giannakopoulos, a pharmaceutical sales representative who spends about 3,000 minutes a month on her cell phone--often while driving--said she supports the ordinance as long as she can continue to use her ear piece. But even with that, she says she is often distracted while driving.
"It's not about the headpiece," she said. "It's about your mental focus, and your mental focus is not the same even with the headpiece."
Brad Jenkins, who works in residential real estate, held his phone in one hand and gripped his steering wheel with the other Wednesday as he drove from Mt. Prospect to the River North neighborhood. But he said he would feel safer in the city when the new ordinance takes effect.
"Every time I almost get hit, it's someone on a cell phone," he said.
But not everyone was supportive of the ordinance.
"It is possible to talk and drive," said Dmitry Bechersky, a Skokie resident who delivers packages in Chicago. "It's not a big deal."