In lieu of phone ban, Urbana may toughen penalties for distracted drivers

By Eric Heisig

For the time being, an Urbana blanket ban on cell phone usage while driving will likely be substituted for an ordinance placing harsher penalties on drivers who become involved in a collision while using their cell phone.

“Rather than ban cell phones, what we want to do is have a general ordinance that you can treat (these instances) as an aggravated incident,” said Charlie Smyth, Committee of the Whole chair and Ward 1 alderman. “You would be guilty for an aggravated version of whatever you did.”

Smyth explained that if a driver gets into a collision while on a cell phone an additional fine could be added to the original offense.

This ordinance would ideally be in effect in the fall, which would leave some time to educate the community, including returning students, Smyth said.

“The idea is to discuss this on Monday and write ordinances from there,” Smyth said.

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The city’s Committee of the Whole will discuss possible ordinances during its weekly Monday evening meeting.

The all-encompassing ban will not be enacted for some time. A one-year study to find the correlation between traffic accidents and cell phone use will be performed before the Urbana City Council makes any decisions on the ban.

Local consideration for a cell phone ban has been encouraged largely after the death of Matthew Wilhelm in September 2006. The 25-year-old former University student was riding his bike on a highway exit ramp and was struck by a driver downloading ring tones to her cell phone. Wilhelm died several days after.

The driver was charged with an improper lane change and fined $1,000.

Also Monday, the Committee has planned to consider the allocation of funds brought in through alcohol sales at summer outdoor festivals. If an ordinance is drafted and passed, the city will take a percentage of the revenue from the festival, instead of a flat fee from all of the vendors. Smyth said the percentage would probably be between 5 and 10 percent.

The Committee also plans to draft an ordinance to standardize lighting in the University districts, which will include standards to fully cut off light from the night sky. If this ordinance moves forward, Smyth said there will be less light pollution in the sky. He said all of the light fixtures should be facing completely down, instead of allowing some light to leak into the sky.

“Without the proper standardization, we are wasting a lot of money on energy,” he said.

The Urbana City Council meets on Mondays at 7 p.m. in the Urbana City Building, 400 S. Vine St.