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Cellphones, Facebook license plate fees in mix

Drivers, employers must pay attention to changes

SPRINGFIELD – Drivers in Illinois have four new laws to pay attention to in the coming year: Gov. Pat Quinn signed laws confronting distracted driving and speeding. 

One new law makes it illegal for drivers to use cellphones in all roadwork zones. The law previously applied only to work zones with speed limit reductions of 20 mph or more.

Sterling police Lt. Tim Morgan said the new law beefs up the existing law.

The original law really didn’t apply to the majority of construction zones, he said. Interstate work zones usually require drivers slow from 65 mph to 45 mph, for example, but in-town work zones typically don’t require motorists to slow down that much, say from 30 mph to 10 mph, he said.

Morgan said the original law did not apply to the First Avenue Bridge reconstruction project.

“A lot of people assumed it applied and didn’t use their phones – which is good – but some people still did, and we could take no enforcement action against them,” he said.

The new law simply prohibits drivers from hand-held cellphone use in all construction zones; the law still allows drivers to use phones in hands-free modes, he said. First-time violations carry a $250 fine. Second and subsequent violations carry a $750 fine. All violations require a court appearance.

The law also makes it illegal to use a cellphone while driving within 500 feet – or a little more than a city block – of an emergency scene.

Morgan said the new law attacks distracted, voyeuristic driving.

“It gets people to focus on what is happening there and driving carefully,” he said.

Drivers approaching an accident scene, for example, might feel inclined to use cellphones to take video or photographs of the wreck, he said. The new law prohibits that and other hand-held cellphone use within 500 feet of any emergency vehicle (police, fire or ambulance) with its emergency lights on.

Another law bars commercial drivers from any hand-held cellphone use.

Quinn also signed a bill known as Julie’s Law, which increases penalties for serious speed-limit violations. The law is named after Julie Gorczysnski, a 17-year-old Frankfort girl who died after her car was hit by a driver going 76 mph in a 40 mph speed zone.

That driver had received court supervision seven times in the past for excessive speeding. The new legislation will keep courts from granting supervision for drivers exceeding 25 mph over the posted speed limit.

Speaking of drivers, vehicle owners also will pay $2 more to renew their Illinois license plates next year, to help fund repairs to state parks.

Other new laws require strip clubs to contribute to rape crisis programs and prohibit employers from asking job applicants for their social media passwords.

While inaction on the severely underfunded state pension programs took most of the headlines in 2012, lawmakers and Quinn adopted about 150 laws that take effect Jan. 1.

They range from prohibiting the possession of shark fins to requiring better reporting of people who should not be issued permits to purchase guns.

Lawmakers return to Springfield just after the New Year’s holiday for an abbreviated version of what had been an ambitious, 7-day session to close out the work of the current General Assembly before a new one is inaugurated Jan. 9.

Democrat Quinn hoped legislators would focus on fixing the worst-in-the-nation funding crisis for public pensions, and still maintains there’s time. But the Senate announced it will be in Springfield Jan. 2-4, then leave town while the House takes up action from Jan. 6-9.

Despite a huge income tax increase during a similar January session in 2011, lawmakers continue to wrestle with state budget problems caused largely by the Legislature’s failure until recent years to make the huge payments to the state pension fund that should have been made.

One solution was to adopt fees – some more universal than others – to keep pace with expenditures.

Basic license plate fees will increase $2, to $101 annually, raising as much as $20 million for state parks. Along with other fee increases, the Department of Natural Resources expects a new stream of up to $35 million to chip away at delayed maintenance and repair. The backlog has grown to $750 million, officials said.

Motorists likely won’t notice the fee until March renewals are due because when Quinn signed the bill earlier this month, state officials already had sent out January and February notices.

Strip club operators objected to a “pole tax” designed to raise money for rape crisis centers, at least at the initially proposed $5-per-patron level. Advocates argue that alcohol consumption in clubs where there is also nude dancing contributes to a culture that can lead to violence against women.

The two sides negotiated a $3 surcharge per customer, with the option that clubs pay an annual fee of $5,000 to $25,000, based on sales.

And a tightening of gun permit restrictions will take effect that was passed long before this month’s school attack in Newtown, Conn., but that in part addresses mental health concerns raised by the massacre.

Among other things, the law that takes effect Tuesday requires notifying the Illinois State Police, which issues Firearm Owners Identification cards, anytime a local court determines that a person has a “mental disability” that might make him or her unsuitable for gun ownership.

That was already part of the law, but a review by the state Auditor General issued last spring found that only three of 102 circuit clerks statewide submitted required notices to the state police.

The audit arose from a 2011 brouhaha over a public records request by The Associated Press for information on all FOID cardholders in the state. The state police denied the request, but the attorney general determined the information was public record. The Illinois State Rifle Association successfully sued to block the release of names of those who hold gun licenses.

Legislative action to shut down access followed, but not before lawmakers ordered the audit, which found an understaffed state police department “overwhelmed” by its FOID duties.

Other new laws will:

– Prohibit employers from demanding that job applicants disclose passwords to social media accounts, such as Facebook, so they can be reviewed during the vetting process.

– Prohibit the possession, sale, or distribution of shark fins. An expensive delicacy used to make soup, shark fins aren't harvested in landlocked Illinois, but Chicago has a thriving market. Environmentalists say harvesting shark fins is inhumane and threatens the shark population.

– Prescribe tougher penalties for child-sex crimes, including barring convicted sex offenders from participating in holiday events that involve children, such as giving candy to trick-or-treaters and dressing up as Santa Claus.

Another law increases the age of a victim of child luring to 17 and makes it a felony if the teenager is traveling to or from school. Accompanying that measure is one that categorizes anyone convicted of luring a minor as a sexual predator. Another law enhances child pornography penalties if the child is younger than 13.

– Create a package of laws directed at preventing elder abuse. One provides law enforcement agencies, fire departments and other first responders with greater access to abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation records so they have better information about a senior's needs when answering a call. Police training will also include a course in recognizing elder abuse, neglect, and other crimes.

Another law allows a judge to freeze the assets of someone charged with financial exploitation of a senior or a person with a disability in case restitution is ordered.

– Allow law enforcement officers to use wiretaps or other eavesdropping measures during a felony drug investigation if approved by a state's attorney instead of a judge.

– Bar the use of taxpayer or tuition dollars to conduct a college hiring search except for a university president or in a case where the president and trustees can show a need.

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