Evanston news delivered free to your inbox! 

A proposed ban on all cellphone usage while driving, including hands-free, bluetooth, integrated and the currently banned hand-held, escaped an openly sceptical Human Services Committee on March 5. With three of the five committee members expressing serious reservations, particularly over enforcement of the measure, the proposed ordinance’s prospects before a full City Council are unclear at best.

Discussion of the item began with a lengthy presentation, complete with 19-slide PowerPoint show, led by Dave Teater of the National Safety Council. Mr. Teater, invited to speak by the proposal’s sponsor Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, catalogued the evidence that supports the contention that hands-free devices are just as distracting and therefore just as dangerous as hand-held cell phones.

The conclusion reached in multiple studies, said Mr. Teater, is that drivers talking on a phone, hands-free or hand-held, are four times as likely to get into a wreck. The reason, he said, is that the brain cannot multitask well, and cognitive function turns away from driving and to the conversation.

After Mr. Teater’s presentation, additional speakers piled it on. One after another, bikers, pedestrians and drivers spoke about the dangers of talking while driving. Anecdotal observations noted that up to half of Evanston’s drivers are on the phone every day despite the hand-held ban.

Enforcement of a hands-free device ban, however, was a sticking point. “How do we enforce [this]?” asked Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward. With bluetooth technology, an officer cannot tell if a driver is singing with the radio or yelling at the radio, he said.

“I just can’t even imagine about enforcement,” said Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward.

Sergeant Thomas Moore, head of the Evanston Police Department’s traffic enforcement division, said that motorcycle cops will be the primary enforcement squad. During warmer months, he said, motorcycles will ride up next to cars with open windows and listen in to see if a cellphone conversation was in progress. If so, tickets will be issued.

Enforcement, he added, would be, for all practical purposes, limited to those times of year when it was warm enough to drive with open windows. If it is hot enough for air conditioning, or cold enough for windows to stay up, it is doubtful any tickets would be written.

“I’d hate to think we’re listening in to [private] conversations,” said Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward. “I’ve got a little bit of a problem with this.”

Ald. Fiske said different communities having different rules for cellphone usage presents problems. “I’d like to stay in sync with the state,” she said.

Ald. Grover said Evanston was already two years ahead of the state. She pointed to crash data in Evanston since the hand-held ban, which, said Sgt. Moore, reveals a 17.6 percent decrease in “injury crashes” since the ban’s passage. An attached memo said nearly 3,000 traffic tickets for cellphone usage had been written and fines collected on over 80 percent of those tickets.

Both Alds. Holmes and Tendam both said they would vote for the measure just to get it to Council, but it is clear they have serious concerns. Ald. Fiske voted no. By a weak 4-1 vote, the ban moves on to full Council for a larger community discussion – and more PowerPoints. There it faces an uphill battle.