Hands off: Riverside's police chief made good on his warning that the village's officers would ticket motorists using handheld cellphones. The first citation was issued at 12:50 a.m. on Jan.1. (Photo courtesy of Riverside Police Department)

In the last week of 2013, Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel announced that, come Jan. 1, 2014, his officers would be enthusiastically enforcing a new Illinois law prohibiting the use of handheld cellphones while driving.

It didn’t take long for Riverside police to make good on that promise.

Just 50 minutes into the New Year, a Riverside police officer issued a citation to a 43-year-old Willowbrook woman who allegedly was talking on her cellphone while driving her 2005 Honda southbound on Harlem Avenue from East Burlington Street.

According to Weitzel, while the officer was processing the ticket, he reported seeing three more motorists talking on their phones as they drove past.

“It’s a real hazard,” said Weitzel about the use of handheld cellphones while driving. “Cellphone use is a major contributor to accidents and fatalities.”

Weitzel said that as far as he can tell, Riverside was the first community to enforce the new law by issuing a ticket.

Riverside police blamed distracted driving for a 2010 incident in which a Berwyn man was seriously injured after he was struck while crossing Harlem Avenue by a vehicle that drove through a red light at Longcommon Road.

Nationwide, according to Weitzel, more than 3,300 people were killed in distracted driving crashes in 2012.

The state of Illinois has banned the use of handheld cellphones in school zones since 2010, and Riverside has launched periodic enforcement blitzes to curb cellphone use in those areas. The state also previously banned texting while driving. In 2013, Riverside police issued 26 tickets for texting while driving. All of those citations were written for offenses in school zones, said Weitzel.

But the new law, which was passed by the Illinois General Assembly in August, goes a step further. It bans handheld cellphone use not just in school zones, but everywhere. Drivers can still use cellphones using hands-free options, like Bluetooth devices and speakerphones.

The law also allows for the use of handheld cellphones in emergency situations and provides an exception for two-way mobile radios.

But casually using a cellphone by physically holding it while driving will get motorists a $75 ticket, which — at least in non-home rule communities like Riverside — means a trip to the Maybrook courthouse for a hearing unless the offender simply opts to pay the fine online or by mail.

Weitzel said that the state legislature is likely to amend the statute to allow non-home rule communities to treat the cellphone tickets as a local ordinance violation, which would trigger a local hearing instead of a court appearance. That’s the way local police, for example, handle seatbelt violations.

“I believe they’re going to amend it so everyone can do cellphone tickets like seatbelts, so people don’t have to go to court for the offense,” said Weitzel.

Weitzel also warned that Riverside police will continue to crack down on cellphone use and texting in school zones in 2014.

“I really believe in that,” said Weitzel. “The officers on the day shift say it’s absolutely a problem in school zones and we wanted to make a concentrated effort to target school zones.”