People have to wise up to the dangers of using their phones while they drive.

Cartoonist Walt Kelly coined the phrase "we have met the enemy, and he is us" in the 1960s as a reflection of the turmoil surrounding the war in Vietnam.

The phrase - a reprise of the famous statement by Commander Oliver Perry that "we have met the enemy, and he is ours" - is a colorful way to capture the destruction wrought by people's ill-advised behavior, sometimes to themselves and sometimes to others.

It's certainly not a new concept. But the means of destruction keep developing new forms and, sometimes, grow out of great technical advances, like cellular phones.

Here are a couple of astounding statistics that reveal how the misuse of incredibly useful technology can lay society low.

A study by Volvo revealed that 71 percent of Americans admit they use their cellphones while driving, even though they know it is illegal, both to talk and, even more incredibly, text. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that - at any one time - more than 600,000 drivers across the country are using their cellphones.

The numbers may seem stunning, but they confirm what the average motorist sees every day. People routinely drive and talk and, as a consequence, get into accidents.

This is a real problem, the biggest portion of which is this: Most people appear to acknowledge the danger of the practice, while finding reasons to exclude themselves as contributors. At least they do until it's too late. Then the ugly reality hits home with a fury.

This sort of indifference to public safety requires a strong reaction from government, a la the public health campaigns years ago that warned in stark terms about the medical threats posed by smoking cigarettes. Those advertisements, over time, had a dramatic impact on peoples' behavior.

Illinois and other states need hard-hitting television and radio public service campaigns that drive home the threat created by mixing cellphones and driving. They need to show the social impact of engaging in this kind of unquestionably dangerous behavior.

Until that happens, the Legislature is taking a different course by passing tougher laws that increase penalties.

Last week, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a measure that boosts penalties for drivers who talk and text.

Under the new law, Secretary of State Jesse White can suspend or revoke driving privileges of motorists who are responsible for accidents causing serious injuries.

The fine for violating the "aggravated use of an electronic communication device" is $1,000.

Another new law establishes a ladder of increasing fines for motorists convicted of texting-and-driving offenses, $75 for a first offense, $100 for a second, $125 for a third and $150 for successive offenses.

At the same time, these offenses are now classified as moving violations, meaning multiple violations can result in license suspensions.

All this, of course, would be largely unnecessary if people would stop for a moment and think about the advisability of talking or texting while driving.

Just what is so important that motorists can't wait to talk or text?

If they can't do that, there's another option to reduce the damage - hands-free calling technology that avoids the physical gymnastics required to find and answer a ringing phone.

Motorists need to think harder about the risks they're creating for themselves, their passengers and other drivers, just as state officials must press messaging campaigns that warn of the pitfalls of failing to exercise caution.

The (Champaign) News-Gazette