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A state trooper clocks this vehicle on Interstate 80 at 65 mph, within the new speed limit of 70 mph that took effect Jan. 1. Police and prosecutors report that motorists are not testing the limits of the new law, citing a 37 percent decline in traffic violations over this time last year. Sheriff Tom Templeton credits severe weather for keeping feet off the gas pedal. “You just can’t go at breakneck speeds across these wintry roads,” he said.
One of the perks of being La Salle County sheriff is you can drive at a lively clip — and when another driver blows past your car, you take notice.
Sheriff Tom Templeton has thus kept an eye on Interstate 80, over which he makes a short commute, to gauge whether motorists have been abiding by the new 70-mph speed limit. To his pleasant surprise, most have.
“I don’t see a lot of people way above 70,” Templeton observed. “If I’m driving 65, 70 mph, there aren’t a lot of people passing me.”
It wasn’t hard to figure out why the Jan. 1 law, which raised freeway speeds from 65 mph to 70 mph, isn’t being broken. The National Weather Service counted 27 days of snowfall in a 50-day period and brisk winds have blown snow across the freeway, making Templeton’s daily commute extra-treacherous.
“And that, I think, has been a major factor in people not speeding,” Templeton said. “You just can’t go at breakneck speeds across these wintry roads.”
Court records back up his observation that motorists are hitting the gas a little more gingerly.
Traffic tickets are down more than a third from this time last year. Through Thursday, La Salle County prosecutors finished January with 761 traffic tickets. Last year, there were that many tickets on the books by Jan. 23, en route to 1,185.
The proof will be in the pudding next month, by which time state police will have totaled not only the year-to-date speeding tickets but also the written warnings. (State troopers are under strict orders to not issue verbal warnings for speeding; everything must be in writing.)
Craig Graham, spokesman for District 17 state police in La Salle, said he thinks the final January numbers will be less than eye-popping. Snow, slush and sleet have done more to impede speed violations than any battalion of troopers wielding radar guns.
“Hopefully, people haven’t been pushing it,” Graham said, “because even the legal 70-mph limit has been too fast the way the weather’s been.”
Another reason the interstates haven’t suddenly turned into race tracks is the 70-mph signs didn’t go up right away.
Illinois Department of Transportation spokesperson Paris Ervin said the agency spent $200,000 fabricating and installing about 900 revised speed-limit signs over a month’s span. The new signage included about 95 installed in IDOT district 3 (nine counties, headquartered in Ottawa) by Jan. 14.
Thus, for the first two weeks of the year motorists were left to wonder if the new law superseded the old signage or vice-versa. Most, apparently, decided not to guess wrong.
Police and prosecutors had previously been queried about the impact of Public Act 98-511 and most were accepting, even non-committal, about raising the speed limit by 5 mph. Most acknowledged that Illinois’ neighboring states already have posted speed limits of 70 mph and were OK with following suit as long as speeds were held in check on state and county highways.
The measure itself flew out of Springfield without serious debate. Only 36 of the state’s 177 lawmakers voted against it and most opponents were from congested Chicago and suburbs, which were granted opt-out clauses to keep existing speed limits intact. The bill landed on, and then sprang from, Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk without amendment.
One reason for the limited opposition was traffic violations had been trending downward and didn’t figure to suddenly reverse course. Graduated licensing requirements and tougher DUI enforcement have pushed traffic offenses to record- or near-record lows. Last year, the total number of tickets in La Salle County slid 9 percent to 14,295, the third-lowest total since court records were computerized in the mid-1980s.
None of which is to say prosecutors will treat violations lightly. Springfield may have raised posted limits but lawmakers also enacted stiffer penalties for people tempted to really open it up.
Under the old law, getting clocked 31 mph to 40 mph above the speed limit could get you six months in jail; now, a trip to cooler awaits anyone clocked at 26 mph to 34 mph above the posted limit. And a year in jail awaits anyone caught driving 35 mph above the limit, ratcheted down from 40 above under the old law.
Brian Towne, La Salle County state’s attorney, said he was pleased that motorists have so far exercised restraint with the gas pedal, but also predicted that prudence would yield to temptation when spring arrives.
“The new speed limit is 70 mph — not 75 or 80 — and my assistants in traffic court have marching orders to not cut anybody any breaks,” he warned. “The issue here is one of safety: Speed kills. Anybody caught testing the limits, and putting lives at risk, will pay for it.”