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House passes ban on drivers using cell phones near emergency scenes

A motorist uses cell phone while driving EvanstTuesday.  File Photo. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

A motorist uses a cell phone while driving in Evanston on Tuesday. File Photo. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 9, 2012 5:19PM

SPRINGFIELD – A bill banning hand-held cell phone use while driving near an emergency scene barely passed the Illinois House Friday amid questions about its enforcement and viability on the heels of a broader cell phone ban that passed the day before.

The legislation, House Bill 5099, eked through a chamber ripe with no-shows by a 62-38 margin. It now moves to the Senate.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Costello II (D-Smithton), would ban drivers from using their phones within 500 feet of an “emergency scene” – described as a location where an emergency vehicle has its lights activated – unless the phone is in hands-free mode or the driver is using the phone to communicate with law enforcement.

The bill also specifically bans the driver from taking a digital photo or video.

The vote came in the wake of a broader ban of cell phone use while driving, which passed the House on Thursday. That bill would also exempt drivers who use hands-free mobile devices but would apply to all stretches of road.

Costello said his legislation was written to protect police officers and emergency responders. He offered the anecdote of Starlena Wilson, a state trooper who in 2010 was struck and seriously injured on the Dan Ryan Expressway while conducting a traffic stop. Reports showed the motorist was distracted by her mobile phone.

“I would challenge anyone who has not been a police officer or done a traffic stop: Pull over on the Dan Ryan Expressway, put your hazards on, step outside of your car and see how safe you feel,” Costello said.

He admitted that his bill would become moot if the broader ban is signed into law.

However, Rep. Roger Eddy (R-Hutsonville) said Costello’s bill could mean stricter penalties for violators if both phone bans are enacted.

“You could be cited for two offenses the way this is written,” Eddy said. “That’s the one flaw that I see. I understand that you’re trying to fix something here, but I think it’s very, very complicated.”

Both the House and Senate are on break until after the state’s primary election on March 20.

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