SPRINGFIELD – Illinois state troopers cracked down on distracted driving in the first half of the year as motorists worked to shed the potentially deadly habit of using a cellphone while behind the wheel.

According to statistics collected by the Illinois State Police, the number of citations issued for distracted driving skyrocketed by 193 percent in the first six months of 2014 compared to the same time period a year earlier.

In January, Illinois joined 12 other states in banning the use of cellphones while driving. While texting already was illegal, the new law requires people to use a hands-free device if they want to drive and talk at the same time.

The sponsor of the law, state Rep. John D'Amico, D-Chicago, said the new law will not only save lives, but it clarified state and local laws regarding restrictions on the use of handheld phones. At the time the measure was moving through the legislature, about 76 Illinois communities already had some restrictions on the books.

In a recent interview, D'Amico spoke about the law while he was driving. He said he was using a hands-free device, which has made a significant difference in how safe he feels behind the wheel.

"It works fantastic," D'Amico said. "It makes a great difference when you're driving. I feel it changes my driving habits for the better."

The U.S. Department of Transportation has said drivers using hand-held devices are four times more likely to get into an accident causing injuries, and distracted driving caused 387,000 injuries and more than 3,000 fatalities nationally in 2011.

In all, the state police wrote 5,238 tickets this year, compared to 1,788 the year before.

Despite facing a $75 fine, it's not clear yet whether the crackdown has led to safer roads.

Illinois State Police spokeswoman Monique Bond said drivers might think twice about violating the hands-free law after receiving a citation, which could contribute to fewer crashes.

"While the numbers have increased, an increase in citations does not translate into compliance from motorists," Bond said. "Motorists are creatures of habit."

State Sen. John Mulroe, D-Chicago, who sponsored the law in the Senate, said he still sees people driving while holding a phone.

But, he said he hopes the numbers show people that the police are serious about cracking down on violators.

"I'm hoping it does what we want it to do," Mulroe said.

D'Amico said it may take time for people to begin complying with the law. He said Illinoisans initially were reluctant to use seat belts, but now don't think twice about buckling up.

"I think a lot of it will come down to education," D'Amico said.

While the state police are handing out tickets, the number of citations being issued by local law enforcement agencies varies widely.

In McLean County, for example, Sheriff Mike Emery said his department has issued four phone-related citations since the new law went into effect. He said that compares to three citations the previous year.

Decatur police have been actively handing out tickets. Statistics provided by the department show 192 citations have been issued in the first half of the year.

In Normal, Police Chief Rick Bleichner said officers have issued 468 cellphone-related citations so far this year. In 2013, the department handed out 65 citations for using a cellphone in a school or construction zone and 19 for texting.

Bleichner said the department decided to crack down on cellphone use because of the safety concerns.

"We needed to make it a priority," Bleichner said.

In Franklin County, the sheriff's office has handed out just one ticket.

While Sheriff Don Jones said distracted driving is "definitely a problem," he said, "I haven't ordered my deputies to start writing tickets for that."

"I'm not opposed to the law. There are all sorts of distractions. We've had accidents where people were eating while driving," Jones said.

In DeWitt County, Chief Deputy Mike Walker said the number of citations issued related to the ban also is up from the previous year. He believes it is taking time for people to adjust.

"We certainly are still seeing people on their phones," Walker said. "I think some people are just flat-out ignoring it."

kurt.erickson@lee.net|(217) 782-4043

Springfield Bureau Chief for the Herald & Review

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