Opinion: 70 mph Speed Limit Should Apply to Metro Chicago

…And Residents Should Be Prepared To Go To Prison For 6 Months If The Speed Limit Doesn’t Go Up

By Steve Doner
Former Illinois Chapter Coordinator
National Motorists Association

The recently signed 70 mph speed-limit bill begins to undo the damage done by the national 55 mph limit established in 1973. Illinois had a 70 mph speed-limit 40 years ago and it was not just for rural interstates. Most state highways, even two-lane highways, had limits higher than the 55 mph still in place on metro Chicago’s interstates. In some states, unpaved roads carry the same 55 mph limit as the Tri-State Tollway.

After reading the recent Illinois speed-limit bill and discussing it with sponsor Jim Oberweis, it’s clear to me that the bill was intended to cover, and should apply to, metro Chicago 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 unsafe. County boards may also be able to block the new limit. IDOT could make the data say what they want it to say, but that would be a disservice to tollway customers and all area drivers.

If IDOT abides by the traffic engineering principles espoused by other transportation and police departments across the country and around the world, it is nearly certain that the findings would dictate a speed-limit of 70 mph (or higher) for metro Chicago expressways, with the possible
exception of those inside the city limits. Illinois would not exactly be a leader in making such a move. Already, 33 other states have speed limits of 65 or higher for URBAN areas. Many of these other states, like California and Texas contain major urban centers like Chicago. Even in nearby Michigan, a majority of Detroit area expressways are posted at 70 mph.

IDOT and the county boards should allow metro Chicago limits to revert to 70 mph. All the evidence indicates that there would be no negative impact on safety. In fact, the opposite is true. Overall metro Chicago highway safety would probably be improved. Here’s why:

1. Nearly 90% of fatalities occur on secondary roads. Only 11% of fatalities occur on Illinois interstates, including metro Chicago. So, those big fatality counting signs over the tollways are telling us about the risk after we exit.

Illinois Fatality Trend By Road Type

2. Higher speed-limits on interstates help draw traffic away from highways which are more dangerous, thus increasing overall road safety. This is always a key point, but even more-so in metro Chicago since like Interstate 355 and Interstate 294 charge tolls. There is already a big incentive to take the more dangerous secondary highways such as old 53 and Route 59 for example.

3. For decades, traffic engineers have promoted establishment of speed-limits based on 85th percentile speeds – the maximum speed at which 85% of motorists travel when unencumbered by traffic or enforcement. Well informed state police and transportation departments around the world advocate this approach. The position taken by IDOT is inconsistent with its peers.

4. Speed-limits have very little impact on the pace of faster traffic drivers, including the police, ignore under (and over) posted limits.

5. When limits are under-posted there is one group of drivers who travel at careful and prudent speeds and another group which tries to adhere more closely to the law. Higher interstate speed-limits improve safety by reducing speed variance, road rage and weaving.

6. Under-posted speed-limits breed disrespect for all laws, especially traffic laws. This leads to speeding in construction zones and on secondary roads and other bad behavior. When IDOT has no credibility on speed-limits it reduces their credibility on warnings about texting, cell phone usage, etc.

7. Under-posted speed-limits leave drivers bored, unengaged and distracted. Since driving does not demand their full attention, drivers talk on the phone and even text while driving.because they can. Texting is probably not an issue on the autobahn.

8. Even with increased speed-limit, Illinois interstates and other highways are still posted at or below the limits which were in place in 1973 (pre-55). Since then, the handling capability and safety equipment on vehicles has improved dramatically such that limits of 80+ should be the norm for rural interstates as in many other parts of the industrialized world. An increase to 70 should not be cause for any concern.

9. Insurers and others who profit from speeding tickets tend to cite studies which count the raw number of fatalities (if they are going up) 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. As found in a recent study published in the Florida Public Health Review, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has a tendency to disregard data which does not support their preconceived conclusions.

10. Higher limits reduce congestion and may actually save fuel by allowing drivers to keep a steadier pace.

One final point makes this a rather urgent matter for Chicago area drivers. Beginning 1/1/14, unlucky drivers who “go with the flow” of average traffic speeds could end up paying a $1,500 fine and go to prison for 6 months. If nothing changes, that will be the penalty for going 81 mph in metro Chicago (26 over the 55 limit).

This Class B Misdemeanor penalty presumes that proper speed limits are in place and would not be so bad if the speed-limit was 70 mph. In that case, 96 mph could lead to jail time. With heavy-handed penalties like this, it is absolutely critical that Chicago area interstate speed-limits be set
properly. We all know the 55 limit is a bad joke and the notion of going to jail for 81 is asinine. It’s time we put an end to it.

Wheaton resident Steve Doner is a former Illinois Chapter Coordinator for the National Motorists Association. He currently commutes approximately 30,000 miles per year on Chicago area interstates. As an auditor and financial consultant he has driven nearly all area expressways during the past 30 years. Doner is the father of two teenage drivers and strongly believes that his children would be safer on the roads if speed limits were increased.

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17 Responses to Opinion: 70 mph Speed Limit Should Apply to Metro Chicago

  1. Since the 85th speed on most Chicago area expressways is already above 75 MPH the new law aligns Springfield with reality. The AAA is “Anti-Automobile Association”.

  2. Uncommon Sense says:

    If you are going 81 in a 55, you should go to jail. There is no arguement, none, that says it is safe to drive 26+ mph faster than the posted. The 85th percentile can be, and will be, brought down when folks start going to jail.

    While I don’t disagree that the limits should be raised to 70 on a majority of metro highways, the premise that it’s “unfair” to send folks to jail for driving 26 mph over the posted is ridiculous to the level of making your other (somewhat sensible points) moot.

  3. The danger factor, or lack of one, is NOT related to the numbers on the signs. It is related to the actual traffic flow speeds. If the 85th percentile speeds are around 75 mph, as they are on I-294 and other suburban freeways, then the safest speeds to travel are from the mid-60s to the high 70s. Posting such a road with any speed limit lower than 70 is a gross engineering error – or in Chicagoland’s case, a deliberate and predatory move to facilitate lucrative speed traps.

    Suburban area freeways should all be posted 70, most transitional ones toward downtown should be at 65, and the ones through downtown should mostly be at 55. This is true IF safety is the goal, not revenue.

    James C. Walker, Life Member-National Motorists Association

  4. Jeff says:

    On 294, at most times of day, if you are going 55 miles per hour, you are getting blown off the road. 70 miles per hour makes sense on a road engineered for that speed.

    On the other hand, I would hesitate to apply 70 miles per hour on all of the expressways within the City of Chicago. There are areas of the Chicago exressway system that make that speed dangerous, such as the Edens/Kennedy junction, or the eastern end of the Eisenhower Expressway, where it passes through the Circle Interchange and becomes Congress Parkway. So a one size fits all speed limit might not be appropriate for these particular danger spots.

  5. Steve Doner says:

    Uncommon Sense – it would seem that we might be mostly in agreement…

    The new 26 over and current 30 over rules are not necessarily a problem when speed limits are properly set. I bring it up because the heavy-handed penalty seriously escalates the problem of underposted speed limits.

    As for 85th percentile speeds coming down, that is not how its supposed to be measured. Proper measurements are done when traffic is free flowing, unencumbered by traffic and enforcement.

  6. David says:

    The Kennedy-Edens junction (in bound) is already an exercise in sheer terror. The slow lane of the Kennedy merges with the fast lane of the Edens. The idea that this merge could safely run at 70 MPH is laughable. Its already idiocy at 55 MPH. If you “Must” go to 70 MPH, a number of places have to be re-engineered (for example the West Bound Cumberland Exit ramp which requires a lane change into a lane of entering traffic and exit in the space of 150 yards….) of people will die. A “high speed” Kennedy will need a large percentage of its NOrthwest Side Entrance and Exit Ramps closed.

  7. Steve Doner says:

    David and Jeff – no doubt there are a few places where the limit may need to be lower. However, another thing to keep in mind is that during heavy rush hour traffic the flow will self-regulate to a lower speed no matter what the limit is. If we set limits based on rush hour or bad weather they would be set closer to 45. The speed limit is supposed to be a maximum under ideal conditions. Even at 70 we are not there yet but it is a step in the right direction. To do it right and be in sync with most of the world rural would be more like 80-85 and urban 65 to 75 depending.

  8. David says:

    Steve wrote:
    no doubt there are a few places where the limit may need to be lower. However, another thing to keep in mind is that during heavy rush hour traffic the flow will self-regulate to a lower speed no matter what the limit

    My comment:
    Ah yes, the hoary old “85th percentile” argument. The problem with this argument is that technology has improved to the point where the drivers are able to go much faster without the “perception” of danger that causes them to slow down. The issue isn’t just the risk to the driver, its the risk to the rest of the users of the road. And that’s why the laws of physics and reaction time tell us that the “85th Percentile” perception is just not safe. A 65 to 75 MPH urban speed limit is insane as is an 80 to 85 MPH rural speed limit unless you are going to significantly increase the standard for getting a drivers license, significantly restrict access to the highways, and actively and aggressively remove from the driving population the “bad” drivers. At 85 MPH the stopping distance is twice that of 55 MPH and three times that of 45 MPH. Physics and reaction time dictate much of this.
    Those entry ramps in the loop? What’s the “acceleration distance…” A Porsche Turbo needs 4.5 seconds to go from 0 to 60. A Mack Truck going 85 MPH will cover nearly two football fields in that time. That requires LONG ramps with a lot of merge.

  9. Pete says:

    “Uncommon sense”, (uncommon for a good reason) you are an Authoritarian Nazi. 81 in a 55 MPH zone where the limit should be at least 70 is NO reason to send good people to jail. If you think that mass arrests are going to slow people down, you are dead wrong. All they will do is get some politicians thrown out of office, which would certainly not be a bad thing at all.

    The people have spoken time and time again: 55 is a joke.

  10. bahnburner says:

    James C. Walker wrote: Suburban area freeways should all be posted 70, most transitional ones toward downtown should be at 65, and the ones through downtown should mostly be at 55. This is true IF safety is the goal, not revenue.

    My comment: I agree with this 100%! This can apply with our existing law, of course. Just common sense. Wish you worked for IDOT to help set speed limits, James.

  11. Fred says:

    Whenever I travel west to Elgin via I-90 to meet family, I see absolutely no reason to stick to 55 mph when I’m 30+ FREAKING MILES OUTSIDE THE CITY OF CHICAGO!! Almost all suburban sections should be at 70 mph. I-94 in Lake County should be raised to 70 mph. That highway is just so wide and straight that it just begs to be driven at 100+ mph *drools*.

  12. John says:

    IL state police should focus less on people “going with the flow” and enforce the left lane law. People driving 30+ over or under the speed limit and left lane hogs who won’t yield to faster traffic are the REAL problem.

  13. Tony says:

    There is already a Chicago area interstate that has a 70mph speed limit all the way up to the Chicago city limits I90 the Indiana toll road they raised this section on 2/6/2012 they have been advertising on the radio that you can go 70 on it.

  14. Uncommon Sense says:

    Steve – Absolutely agree with a majority of your points. Specifically, that proper speed limits based on engineering solves most of the problems. My only point was that safety is increased as the variance shrinks. If the speed limit is 55, some will drive 55 even if a majority drives between 65 and 75. I fully support driving down the top-end of the range with “heavy-handed” enforcement in cases where (for whatever reason) the bottom of the range isn’t increased.

    Pete – I’m having a hard time taking your points seriously, due to your childish behaviour. That said, if a person is driving 26+ miles over the posted, they are by definition not a “good person”. Accept the reality that there is a sizable populous that drive the posted (and they are by the way, the portion that isn’t breaking the law). These are the good people. Driving 26+ means you are knowingly putting the safety of others at risk just so you can get there faster. Yes, get rid of 55 mph where you can, but don’t put others at risk because you disagree with the posted speed limit.

  15. Pete says:

    Anyone who advocates jailing people who drive 81 MPH on a road that everyone knows should have a 70 MPH limit (most of 294) is in fact an Authoritarian Nazi. Thank God you people are in the minority in this country. I would say you could move to China or Russia if you like this sort of heavy-handed government, but even they are moving in the opposite direction now.

    By the way, going 55 MPH on Chicago-area expressways when there is no traffic congestion just because some sign says to do so is truly unsafe. If traffic in general is moving 75-80 MPH, doing 55 is a road hazard.

  16. David says:

    I wouldn’t jail you, I would take your drivers license. It is not up to the driver to decide which traffic laws they will obey and which thy will not. If you think that the speed limit should be 95, go ahead and get the law changed. You will fail because most people will not agree ith you.

  17. B says:

    Uncommon Sense,

    I don’t know if you are trolling or simply are an incapable driver scared of his own shadow or what. 81mph is a safe speed in my Ford Maverick provided the interstate is shared with cars of the same vintage. In a modern car, that is any car made in the last 25 years, 81mph is boringly safe. German Autobahn flows at 90-100mph without issue and safer than much slower interstates.

    Not a good person for doing 81mph? You’re one warped puppy. Why is your government’s dictates what determines a good person? Government murders people across the planet. Their dictates on morality, especially arbitrary numerical figures, are thus irrelevant.

    Kennedy-Edens junction: It’s just a plain boneheaded piece of road design. No speed limit makes it worse or better. It’s just stupid road design. Patching over stupidity with low speeds so the stupidity doesn’t hurt so much is the american way. Stupid road design and stupid driving where people ignore right of way rules and lane discipline is compensated for by trying to force people to drive slower. Fix the real problems.

    85th Percentile: Ever drive in Germany? Speed limits are not needed for safe driving on limited access highways. What’s needed is driver discipline, that is proper lane usage, using mirrors and signals. The 85th percentile is a decent method for setting a speed limit. When a low speed limit appears under that method it appears with good reason rather than some local politician pulled a ‘feels good’ number out of his butt.

    Loop entry ramps? I did those in my 6 cylinder 85hp Maverick for years before they tore down half of them. People were actually driving 60-70mph, yet I could merge just fine. I didn’t like it. But again it is stupid road design. Trying to patch stupid with low speed limits doesn’t work.

    Which laws to obey and ones not to: All traffic laws are selectively enforced. Law is the law people would get lots of tickets if they were all enforced. But instead because they drive ordinary cars and don’t speed too much over the PSL they get a pass.

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