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Two people nearly lost their lives in this Interstate 80 crash in which two motorcyclists were injured avoiding a vehicular crash. Auto fatalities in the Illinois Valley were up slightly compared to 2013, but authorities were quick to blame winter weather rather than cellular telephone use or the new 70 mph speed limit for the up-tick. Improving vehicle safety, seat belt use and, not least, fewer DUIs have held fatalities sharply lower than a decade ago.
Jody Bernard never ventures too far from her pager after New Year’s Eve.
Snowy weather — coupled with New Year’s cocktails — leads to car accidents and can make January a busy month for La Salle County’s coroner. This year brought another potential worry when Illinois raised its speed limit to 70 mph, and police were on guard for motorists testing the new speed limit as summer approached.
Well, summer season effectively ended Labor Day and authorities report La Salle County roads are, statistically, less dangerous than they were a decade ago — even with the higher speed limit.
Yes, 15 people lost their lives in traffic accidents this year and that figure exceeded last year’s total by two. Bernard is first to admit a single fatality is one too many.
But Bernard has analyzed this year’s data and squarely blames Old Man Winter — three fatalities in January — with padding this year’s total. Neither the increased speed limit nor distracted driving (i.e., using a cell phone at the wheel) has made the roads riskier.
Instead, the area continues to benefit from improving safety features in cars and, new in La Salle County, fewer drunk drivers getting behind the wheel.
“Up until about 2008, our average was 25 fatalities a year, and then we started to see a decline to about 14 a year,” Bernard said. “People are much more conscious of drinking and driving, and if they’re out for a celebration, they know who their designated driver is going to be.”
As for speed, Bernard said the incremental climb to 70 mph reflected what people were doing already.
“I travel on the interstate every day,” she shrugged. “Most people were going over 65 mph before the law took effect.”
That the roads are generally safer isn’t merely happening in the Illinois Valley. Headed into Labor Day weekend, police in Illinois announced stepped-up patrols to dissuade people from drinking and driving, even as they noted fatalities were down, statewide, from 2013.Through Aug. 26, Illinois motor vehicle fatalities stood at 562, or 83 fewer compared to the same time last year.
“While we are encouraged that seat belt usage is up and motor vehicle fatalities are down so far this year, we can never be complacent about safety,” said Erica Borggren, acting Illinois Transportation Secretary. “Any death on Illinois roadways is one too many – particularly when using seat belts and driving sober could have prevented it.”
Seat belt use has been credited with shaving the death rate, with 94 percent of Illinois motorists reportedly buckling up. Coupled with advances in automotive technology, and highway deaths have taken a positive turn.
The new story is reduced drunk driving. Authorities have variously credited a bad economy and cumbersome penalties with making drinkers think twice before taking the wheel. Such restraint has yielded positive trends at both the courthouse and at the morgue.
Between 2006 and 2008, La Salle County averaged a record-smashing 800 DUIs a year and buried 83 motorists over the same span.
By year’s end, however, the county’s three-year average will have plunged to about 580 DUIs annually with about 30 lives lost over the same span.
La Salle County state’s attorney Brian Towne said he joins Bernard in aspiring to hold the latter figure to zero. Nevertheless, he’s pleased with the apparent link between increased DUI enforcement and declining vehicular fatalities.
He also credits the tumbling death total to the fact there are fewer drunk-drivers on the road but also more experienced motorists. Graduated licensing has increased the number of behind-the-wheel hours student drivers have to log before getting their licenses, producing young motorists who are less green and therefore less likely to wreck their cars.
“It’s not like the old days when you drove a couple of hours with dad and then, when you turned 16, you went to the Secretary of State’s Office to get your license,” Towne said. “There’s a much greater emphasis on driving safely and restrictions to give student drivers more supervised time at the wheel. “If you make drivers more experienced and cut down on alcohol on the road, you’re destined to have success.”
Statistics back that up. Not only is La Salle County heading to a near-record low in DUIs — on pace for 565, second-lowest ever — but on pace, too, for a record low in traffic tickets. Through Labor Day weekend, La Salle County was headed for a yearly total of 12,500 tickets, less than half the total recorded in 2003.
Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_Court.
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