Illinois traffic crashes up 9 percent this year
BY TINA SFONDELES Transportation Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org July 25, 2012 8:46PM
An IDOT digital billboard on northbound I-57 informs drivers on Tuesday that there have been 532 traffic deaths this year in Illinois. I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times
Updated: August 27, 2012 11:21AM
Traffic deaths have spiked by 9 percent in Illinois this year compared to this time last year, and officials say more people out on the roads thanks to the year’s warm winter and spring is partly to blame.
As of Wednesday, 533 people have been killed in vehicle and motorcycle crashes, as well as crashes involving bicyclists and pedestrians. That’s a 45-death increase from last year’s total through late July, when 488 deaths were recorded, figures show.
“Distracted driving is playing a role,” Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider said. “We also have noticed that we’ve seen a 70 percent increase in motorcycle related fatalities . . . [The spike in fatalities] is part of a national trend and part of it could be that the weather was mild during the winter months and so we saw increase in travel during those months. That could be part of what’s driving the increase.”
Despite public awareness campaigns, roughly 10 percent of the state’s traffic fatalities this year are tentatively tied to distracted driving — or texting while driving and checking e-mail, Schneider said.
In Chicago and its surrounding suburbs, State Police have also dealt with an increase in DUI crashes and a rash of wrong-way drivers, including the deaths of seven people. Four were killed in a wrong-way crash near Hazel Crest in February.
The running tally of deaths is now featured and updated in real time on 54 electronic billboards on and near Chicago area expressways. Those are the signs that also detail how long the drive into the city is or whether there’s an Amber Alert.
“The billboard campaign that we have going on is to use our ‘dynamic message signs’ to let people know the current fatality count. I know there might be some controversial questions about that,” Schneider said. “The idea is to really grab attention so that drivers can see what they do on the road really can make a difference.”
To address wrong-way crashes, Schneider said the state is working with Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville to analyze engineering solutions to avoid the type of crashes. In some cases that could mean changing pavement markings or the alignment of the street, she said.
Other programs to curb the number of fatalities include work zone safety education programs in the summer and added law enforcement to get drivers to buckle up.
The department’s Bureau of Safety Engineering has also created “hot spot” maps which show county by county which intersections are high risk for crashes. Engineers are also looking at the worst five percent area of roadways that could see improvements to increase safety, Schneider said.
To decrease motorcycle crashes, State Police earlier this month announced the Operation Rogue Rider campaign targeting speeding motorcyclists. Troopers are now patrolling a portion of the Edens Expressway and are asking the public to call police with sightings of “rogue riders.”
And although state officials haven’t linked the economy to the fatal crash uptick, at least one expert believes lower fuel prices are contributing to more drivers on the roads and more crashes.
“The numbers were bound to get worse with the surge in driving and fuel prices going down,” Joseph Schwieterman, transportation expert at DePaul University said.
“When traffic increases, fatalities go up because you get more congestion and more opportunities for accidents when you get to two lane roads in heavy traffic,” Schwieterman said. “Traffic is up eight percent [nationwide] this year, so the nine percent increase in accidents is of no surprise to me.”