Doner: New speed limit should apply to Chicago area
By Steve Doner Guest commentary September 3, 2013 9:46PM
Updated: October 5, 2013 6:08AM
The new law raising the speed limit on Illinois highways to 70 mph begins to undo the damage done by the national 55 mph limit that was established in 1973.
Illinois had a 70 mph speed limit 40 years ago, and it was not just for rural interstate highways. Most highways in the state, even two-lane highways, had limits higher than the 55 mph still in place on highways in the Chicago area.
After reading the new law and speaking with its sponsor, state Sen. Jim Oberweis (R-Sugar Grove), it is clear to me that it was intended to apply to the Chicago region for the same reasons that it makes sense downstate.
The speed limit for all metro Chicago interstates will revert to 70 mph unless the Illinois Department of Transportation produces an engineering study proving the new limit to be unsafe. Counties may also be able to block the higher limit within their borders.
If IDOT abides by the traffic engineering principles espoused by other transportation and police departments across the country, it is nearly certain that the findings would dictate a speed limit of 70 mph for Chicago-area expressways, with the possible exception of those inside the city limits.
IDOT and the county boards should stand aside and allow the metro Chicago limit to be 70 mph. All the evidence indicates that there would be no negative impact on traffic safety. In fact, the opposite is true. Here’s why:
The most recent statistics show that nearly 90 percent of traffic fatalities occur on secondary roads. Only 11 percent of fatalities occur on Illinois interstates, including those through the Chicago area. So, those big fatality-counting signs over area expressways and tollways are telling us about the risk after we exit them.
Higher speed limits on interstates help draw traffic away from the more dangerous secondary roads, thus increasing overall safety. This is always a key point, but even more so in metro Chicago because interstates such as 294 and 355 charge tolls — giving drivers a big incentive to take secondary highways such as Illinois 53 and 59 to avoid tolls.
For decades, traffic engineers have promoted speed limits based on “85th percentile speeds” — the maximum speed at which 85 percent of motorists travel when unencumbered by traffic or enforcement. Well-informed state police and transportation departments advocate this approach. The position taken by IDOT is inconsistent with its peers.
When limits are under-posted, there is one group of drivers that travels at careful and prudent speeds and another that tries to adhere more closely to the limit. Higher interstate highway speed limits improve safety by reducing speed variance among drivers, weaving between lanes and road rage.
Under-posted speed limits breed disrespect for traffic laws, which leads to speeding in construction zones and on secondary roads and other bad behavior. When IDOT has no credibility on the maximum speed limits, it loses credibility on warnings about texting, cellphone usage, etc.
Even with a 70 mph limit, Illinois interstates and other highways will be posted at or below the limits that were in place in 1973 (pre-55 mph). Since then, the handling capability and safety equipment on vehicles has improved dramatically such that limits of 80 mph or more should be the norm for rural interstates as in many other parts of the industrialized world.
Insurers and others who profit from speeding tickets tend to cite studies that count the raw number of traffic fatalities rather than looking at the rate per mile driven. The actual fatality rate has fallen steadily for decades during times of both rising and falling speed limits.
Higher speed limits reduce congestion and may actually save fuel by allowing drivers to keep at a steadier pace.
One final point makes this a rather urgent matter for Chicago-area drivers. Beginning Jan. 1, drivers who exceed the speed limit by 26 mph or more, could end up paying a $1,500 fine and getting as much as six months in jail. If nothing changes, that will be the penalty for going 81 mph in metro Chicago (26 over the 55 mph limit).
With heavy-handed penalties such as this, it is absolutely critical that Chicago-area interstate speed limits be set properly. We all know the 55 mph limit is a bad joke, and the notion of possibly being jailed for going 81 mph is asinine. It’s time we put an end to it.
Steve Doner is the former Illinois chapter coordinator of the National Motorists Association.