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Speed limit increase could backfire

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

For better or for worse, speed limits will be raised on hundreds of miles of interstate highways in rural areas of Illinois next year.

Last week, Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law a bill that allows speed limits to increase to 70 mph on rural interstates from the current 65 mph. The law takes effect Jan. 1.

The idea is to allow motorists to drive a little faster in less populated areas where traffic is lighter. Eight counties that are home to Illinois’ urban areas, including Chicago’s Cook County, will be allowed to opt out of raising the speed limit.

We know many Illinoisans applaud the raising of the speed limit, but it’s worth noting that both the Illinois State Police and the head of the Illinois Department of Transportation opposed the idea. They contend that higher speeds on the highway will result in more traffic accidents. And there is some evidence to support their concerns.

Supporters of the bill have claimed that what is more dangerous than the higher speed itself is the disparity among the speeds of motorists, but it’s difficult to understand how allowing some vehicles to travel faster will reduce that differential. Other backers contend the increase will create a more even flow of traffic, but again, that remains to be seen.

What we like is that the law, which applies to four-lane divided highways only, allows for common-sense exceptions. Along with the aforementioned opt-out provision for counties with large populations and heavy traffic, highways that are older or not built to handle higher speeds also can be designated to remain at the 65 mph limit.

Another part of the law allows police to charge speeding motorists with a misdemeanor if they are caught going 26 mph over the limit; the current law requires them to be 31 mph over the limit before they can be charged.

Motorists also should keep in mind that, come Jan. 1, it will be illegal to use a handheld cellphone while driving. This will be especially important on those highways where the 70 mph limit is in effect, as that split-second of inattention motorists often experience while talking on their cellphones could get them in trouble that much quicker.

Some studies have shown that higher speed limits result in more traffic deaths, and that such increases on rural interstates have been as high as nine percent when motorists are allowed to drive faster under the law.

We encourage state officials to keep a close eye on the rate of traffic deaths on those stretches of interstate where the limit is increased. If there seems to be a corresponding climb in the number of fatalities in the first year or two of the higher speed limits, it might be a good idea to reconsider the change.

The (Alton) Telegraph

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