Oak Park officials talk ban on eating while driving

October 16, 2011 11:20:46 AM PDT
A controversial idea to crack down on distracted drivers in suburban Oak Park would ban eating, drinking and applying makeup, as well as talking on the phone while behind the wheel.

Texting while driving is already banned in Illinois and talking on a handheld phone is illegal in Chicago.

If it becomes an ordinance, this would be the first law of its kind.

Village officials say they are merely talking and no formal proposal has been put on the table. Still, at least one study by the federal government shows eating behind the wheel to be a bigger problem than people think, and some say it's time for laws to get tougher.

The issue is giving some Oak Park drivers heartburn.

"I think they may be pushing it a little bit. I don't think that's necessary," said Jesse Howard, motorist.

"If you're eating a four-course meal in your car probably you should not be doing that, but if you're having a granola bar who cares?" said Doug Fagans, motorist.

Though village officials are primarily concerned about driver texting and cell phone use, they have also discussed the issue of eating and applying makeup behind the wheel.

"I think I'd like to hear more information about it. I think we need to get more statistics on the safety issue before I would make up my mind on something like that," said John Hedges, Oak Park village trustee.

A 2009 study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found eating and drinking to be a factor in more crashes than DUI, cell phone use or texting.

"You're looking at one or two minutes, maybe three or four minutes, to take you to eat whereas you can cause a person a lifetime of hurt," said Melvin Stewart, Oak Park resident.

Anita Zaffke, of Lake Zurich, was killed in 2009 when she was struck on her motorcycle by a driver painting her fingernails. Her son, Greg Zaffke II, founded the Crash Coalition, a group pushing for tougher negligent driving laws.

"There's a huge gap that really needs to be filled in our legal system to hold people fully accountable, as well as provide a public deterrent to keep people from doing dangerous thing behind the wheel," said Greg Zaffke.

Attorney Patrick Salvi has litigated hundreds of distracted driver cases. He supports an eating while driving ban but not if it's too broad.

"I don't think that it would be contemplated that let's say someone is on a three-hour drive, that it would be a violation of the law if they got hungry and wanted to take a bite out of an energy bar," Salvi said.

"There are dozens of different possible distractions that you can engage in, and it's not realistic to pick out just a few and legislate on those or to legislate all of them," said Nick Jarmusz, AAA Chicago spokesperson.

In an e-mail, Oak Park trustee Colette Lueck said before anything is proposed there would certainly be much more discussion. It would likely be January at the earliest before the village is able to take the issue up again.

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