New Ill. laws limit texting, expand records access

AP News
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Posted: Dec 31, 2009 2:23 PM

Most drivers have their own name for those texters in traffic who seem more interested in their cell phones than their cars _ jerk and idiot, to name a couple. Come Friday the state of Illinois will have one, too: outlaw.

A statewide ban on texting while driving is one of nearly 275 new laws that take effect on Jan. 1, covering everything from public records to bowling shoes.

Traffic safety advocates and motorists alike applaud the new texting ban, saying it may make distracted drivers think twice before firing off dispatches from the road.

"Texting takes your hands off of the wheel, your mind off of driving, and your eyes off of the road," said Beth Mosher, spokeswoman for AAA Chicago. "And that's a really dangerous combination."

Rich Kerr has a Blackberry and said while the temptation to text, browse the Web and check e-mail behind the wheel is strong, drivers should remember to focus.

"It's back to basics," he said. "Keep your eyes on the road."

Under the new ban, drivers can check and send messages only if they pull over to the side of the road, their car is in park or neutral or if they're sitting still in traffic, for instance at a train crossing. The law doesn't prevent drivers from reading directions on the screen of a navigation system.

A similar measure also makes it illegal to use a cell phone in a school or construction zone without a handsfree device. Fines can range from $75 to $150, though judges can increase them.

After former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested on federal corruption charges and removed from office, lawmakers set about trying to clean up government.

One major change was beefing up the state's Freedom of Information Act to make it harder for government agencies to ignore requests for public documents. The Blagojevich administration often was criticized for using the law's many loopholes to avoid public scrutiny, something that can also be a problem within local government.

The new law allows fines for illegally withholding documents, a first for Illinois. It also gives Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office new authority _ including the power to issue subpoenas _ to review possible violations of laws on public records and open meetings. The attorney general can then make binding decisions in the disputes.

It limits how much governments can charge to make copies of the information, preventing them from using high prices to scare people into dropping their requests. And it makes it easier for people to recover attorney fees if they must sue a public body to obtain records.

"(Transparency is) the rule rather than the exception, which casts a whole new light on access in Illinois," said Susan S. Stevens, FOIA vice president for the Chicago Headline Club.

On the anniversary of Blagojevich's arrest, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation that establishes the state's first-ever limits on campaign contributions, sets up campaign finance disclosure requirements and requires random audits by the State Board of Elections, among other things.

While the law takes effect in January, most of the major changes don't actually kick in until 2011.

It also has been criticized by many Republicans and some good-government advocates for not going far enough, particularly in curbing the influence of legislative leaders. "The legislation does nothing more than enhance the power of those who supported Rod Blagojevich," said Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady.

Other new laws involve:

_ Bowling shoes. The owners of bowling alleys will now be exempt from lawsuits by people taking a spill in slippery bowling shoes, so long as they post signs warning signs about the dangers of wearing the shoes outside.

_ Speed limits. Semis will be allowed to drive 65 mph on rural interstates, just like other vehicles, instead of being forced to plod along at 55.

_ Flags. As a nod to buying American, all flags flown at state government buildings must be made in the United States.

_ Credit cards. Companies are barred from giving gifts, such as T-shirts or headphones, to college students who fill out credit applications.