Almost 1 out of 5 drivers in Chicago are likely violating the city’s nine-year-old ban on using hand-held cellphones while behind the wheel, according to a state study that prompts questions about whether a new and stricter Illinois law will reduce accidents caused by distracted driving.

Chicago had the state’s highest rate of drivers visibly using electronic devices to either talk on the phone or send or read text messages, according to the statewide study conducted by the Illinois Department of Transportation.

“The survey really told us a lot about what is going on every day,” said John Webber, IDOT’s communications director and the department’s former interim director of traffic safety.

The observational survey of more than 33,000 drivers was done on busy state highways, local roads and residential streets, officials said.

The purpose of the study, conducted in November and provided by IDOT to the Tribune, was to create a baseline to determine the effectiveness of a state law that went into effect Jan. 1 and is intended to further tighten restrictions enacted in 2013.

The new law prohibits drivers from using hand-held cellphones for any purpose. Hands-free technology such as Bluetooth headsets, earpieces and voice-activated devices are permitted.

The new provisions go further than a texting-while-driving ban that went into effect in Illinois last year and provide uniformity across the state, officials said. About 80 municipalities already had banned hand-held cellphone use while driving, IDOT said. That includes Chicago, which has had a ban since 2005.

In Chicago, nearly 18 percent of all drivers who were observed during the study — about 21 percent of female drivers and 15 percent of male drivers — were holding cellphones or other electronic devices close to their ears or faces.

The statewide rate was about 12 percent, the study found. There was a similar gender gap among the smaller portion of violators statewide, with about 14 percent of female drivers and 10 percent of male drivers.

Electronic device use by drivers in Cook County was 12 percent and almost 13 percent in DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Winnebago counties, the IDOT study found.

Six downstate counties (Champaign, Bureau, Effingham, Rock Island, Madison and St. Clair) had the lowest rate of illegal electronic device use, at 9 percent , the study reported.

IDOT officials said they could not provide definitive reasons for the regional differences, but they speculated that the lower average age of the population in the Chicago area and a higher average income might contribute to more drivers in northeastern Illinois owning smartphones.

In addition, slow-moving traffic on many Chicago-area roadways “may lead people to think they can text or phone safely,” resulting in higher use of hand-held devices than occurs downstate, IDOT spokeswoman Jae Miller said.

“Just more opportunity, and frankly, if the population downstate tends to be older or lower in income, there are a lot of people middle-age and up who simply don’t get that engaged in the hand-held technology,” Miller added.

But other possible explanations abound, including that there are more cellphone reception dead spots in rural areas of the state.

In any event, the total ban on using hand-held devices while driving that took effect this year should help provide police with a more clear-cut enforcement strategy, said Webber, who initiated the IDOT study.

“The texting law was almost impossible to enforce. Police and state troopers said it was often in question whether a driver looking at a phone was actually texting,” Webber said. “Now a cop knows that if a driver is spotted with an electronic device in their hand while driving, it’s illegal.”

Still, the high rate of Chicago drivers disregarding a hand-held device law that’s been on the city’s books since mid-2005 “shows us challenges remain even with the new (state) law.”

Ian Savage, a Northwestern University professor who specializes in data-driven transportation research, left open the possibility that without the cellphone ban and accompanying fines, even more distracted drivers would be on the road endangering the public.

But “overall, I’m kind of skeptical about how much of a deterrent these kinds of laws actually are,” said Savage, who added that when he’s out walking his dog he often sees even police officers driving while talking on cellphones.

Savage said that when IDOT conducts a follow-up observational survey in a year to compare data from before and after the new law went into effect, researchers should be careful to go back to the same roads and at exactly the same times of day.

“What IDOT is doing sounds like it is scientifically defensible, but the opportunity to manipulate the outcome could be quite substantial,” he said.

The new Illinois law aimed at addressing the distracted driving problem and the thousands of injuries and deaths nationally that result is being supported by a new push from the federal government. The U.S. Department of Transportation is expected to launch educational and enforcement efforts in April.

The campaign comes as newly released research shows virtually no change in the percentage of drivers text-messaging or visibly manipulating hand-held devices in the U.S. The percentage stood at 5 percent in 2012 — which means that at any given time during the day, an estimated 660,000 vehicles are driven by people using hand-held cellphones, according to the latest annual study conducted for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The study found that hand-held cellphone use continued to be higher among female drivers than male drivers; and highest among 16- to 24-year-olds and lowest among drivers 70 and older.

In 2012, more than 3,300 people were killed in distracted-driving crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In Illinois, fines for violations of the state hands-free rule start at $75. The penalty increases to $100 for a second violation, $125 for a third and $150 for each subsequent offense. After four violations, the Illinois secretary of state has the authority to suspend the driver’s license.

In Chicago, 32,141 cellphone violation tickets were issued by Chicago police in 2013 to drivers who failed to use hands-free devices, according to the Chicago Department of Administrative Hearings. The number of tickets has increased each year since 2005, records show. More than $3.6 million in fines were collected last year, although part of the revenue was for tickets issued in earlier years, city spokesman Bill McCaffrey said.

The average city fine is $100 and, since 2008, the violation, like a parking ticket, has not counted against a driver’s record. In 2005 through 2007, violations of Chicago’s hands-free cellphone law were treated as moving violations and cases were handled in Cook County Circuit Court.

Meanwhile, under state law, distracted drivers who are convicted of injuring others on the road face penalties of up to $2,500 in fines and less than a year of jail time. If deaths are involved, the fines could reach $25,000 and prison time could total up to three years.

Almost 6,000 crashes have occurred in Illinois from 2008 through 2012 in which driver distraction involving a cellphone was cited by police, according to IDOT, adding that 30 deaths resulted. A breakdown for 2013 is not yet available, officials said.

The good news is that total fatalities on Illinois roads so far this year are down from last year. Through March 23, 130 people have died in crashes. The toll was 199 fatalities for the same period in 2013, according to provisional data provided by IDOT.

But the short-term trend does not point to drivers putting more of a focus on their driving. Instead, traffic experts attributed the decrease primarily to this year’s severe winter.

“Fewer people ventured out during the extreme cold and stormy winter we experienced,” said Miller, the IDOT spokeswoman. “Nothing limits traffic crashes like unpredictable and severe weather.”

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