It’s rare for there to be much drama surrounding a vote by the Hinsdale Village Board of Trustees, but there was some Tuesday night at Memorial Hall.
Realizing that her vote was going to decide whether or not the village adopted a new ordinance establishing a $75 fine for distracted driving, Trustee Laura LaPlaca took a long pause before finally casting an affirmative vote. Trustee Bob Saigh, who had made clear his support for the idea, then voted yes to give the ordinance a 4-2 victory.
For most of the meeting, it looked like the ordinance would be defeated. Only Saigh expressed unreserved support for it. In the end, his impassioned defense of the measure and the arguments presented in favor of it by Police Chief Brad Bloom swayed Trustee Chris Elder to change his mind and support the plan, despite some reservations about the definition of distracted driving in the ordinance.
“The broadness of the language still bothers me,” he said. “But between Bob and Chief Bloom … I do see the value of the educational benefit.”
Bloom argued that the ordinance was needed to help educate the public about the dangers of distracted driving, which the ordinance defines as “manipulating items within the vehicle; reading; writing; performing personal grooming with any device; interacting physically with pets or unsecured cargo; using an electronic communications device; or engaging in any other activity, which interferes with the proper operation of vehicle equipment … as evidenced by a contemporaneous moving traffic violation.”
“We have 600 accidents a year in the village,” Bloom noted. “It’s really impossible for us to determine how many of those accidents are related to distracted driving, but from talking with our officers, we think it’s a significant number.”
The primary target of the ordinance is people talking on their cell phones or texting while driving.
“People can’t do both and they can’t do both safely,” Bloom said. “It would bring attention to this issue.”
Violators would be cited for an equipment violation and would not have to appear in court. Bloom said it also would not count as a moving violation on their driving record.
Concerns about lack of specificity, efficacy
Some trustees raised objections to the broad definition of distracted driving in the ordinance and whether or not it would achieve the desired goal of reducing distracted driving in the village.
Elder expressed misgivings about the automatic nature of the fine that motorists would receive.
“There’s really no chance for them to present any evidence or fight it in any way,” he said.
LaPlaca wondered if officers might not cite drivers out of irritation with their behavior.
“It seems like there’s a lot of discretion involved in this ordinance and that bothers me a little bit,” she said.
Saigh, however, said even what appear to be minor incidents, like a driver taking too long to move into an intersection at a stop sign because they were texting, could wind up putting other motorists at risk, as well as pedestrians and bicyclists.
“I’m not alone in seeing really terrible behavior by motorists in the village,” he said. “Cars are more complicated now. Working all the features that are in a car -- that deserves your attention -- not all this electronic foo-fa.”
Saigh said he trusted the village’s police officers to use the discretion afforded by the ordinance wisely.
Village President Tom Cauley said he also had reservations about the “broad language” of the ordinance.
“That was my objection in committee,” Trustee Kim Angelo said. “People are going to see this as a revenue grab.”
The ordinance moved on to the full board of trustees despite a split vote in the Zoning and Public Safety Committee.
“My objective is to get people to put their phones down,” Trustee Doug Geoga said. “I don’t think this is going to encourage people to put down their phones.”
Geoga noted that he had asked Bloom about instituting a complete ban on the use of cell phones while driving in the village, but Bloom had argued that motorists passing from one village to another would not be aware of the law.
Six-month break-in period approved
LaPlaca indicated her support for including with the ordinance a six-month grace period in which officers could stop motorists for distracted driving violations, but they would not be fined. That idea, along with the assurance that the board could revisit the matter at the end of that six-month period if it did not seem to be having the desired effect, seemed to help convince fence-sitters on the board like Trustee Bill Haarlow to vote in favor of the ordinance.
Haarlow said he also was moved by Bloom’s comparison of distracted driving with driving under the influence of alcohol. In response to board members who suggested officers simply cite drivers for the offense observed, Bloom noted that DUI arrests target the behavior that led to a traffic infraction.
“We don’t focus in on the traffic violations that occurred,” he said. “We focus in on the fact that you’re under the influence of alcohol and you’ve committed a contemporaneous moving violation that’s drawn our attention to the fact that you’re under the influence of alcohol. I think what this comes down to is public education. And I’m not sure we’re going to make those inroads in public education other than by stopping driver by driver by driver.”
Angelo and Geoga voted against the ordinance.