Drivers tooling through the Illinois countryside will be able to nudge the gas pedal a little harder next year after Gov. Pat Quinn overcame safety concerns and approved legislation Monday that will raise the speed limit on rural interstates to 70 mph.
Dodging a possible veto showdown, Quinn signed the measure despite opposition from the Illinois Department of Transportation, state police and leading roadway safety organizations, who feared increased mayhem on the highways, especially between cars and trucks.
"This limited 5 miles-per-hour increase will bring Illinois' rural interstate speed limits in line with our neighbors' and the majority of states across America, while preventing an increase in excessive speeding," Quinn said in a statement.
The six-county Chicago region — home to some of the nation's busiest interstates — would be allowed to set lower speed limits under the law, as would two Illinois counties near St. Louis. The speed limit would increase on the Illinois Tollway but also could be kept at current limits on some stretches, according to the governor's office.
The speed limit in Illinois is 55 mph in metropolitan areas and 65 on rural highways. But on Jan. 1, Illinois will become the 37th state to approve limits of 70 mph or higher since the national speed limit was repealed almost two decades ago.
That couldn't come soon enough for Mark Bohlin, 45, of Tinley Park, who says he spends a lot of time on the road.
"It's a no-brainer," he said. "Increase the speed limit. Everyone already drives about 80 miles per hour on the highway. A lot of other states already have higher speed limits and it seems to work for them."
It's not yet clear whether the new maximum speed limit will be in place in some of the state's most populous areas. Under the measure, Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will could keep their maximum speed limits below 70 mph if they so choose.
Opponents argue that higher speeds will lead to an increase in fatalities and make it more difficult for large trucks to stop to avoid collisions.
After initially expressing safety concerns, Quinn decided to sign the measure after studying the issue over the summer, an aide said. Ultimately, Quinn decided there were enough protections in the bill, such as allowing heavily populated counties to opt out and lowering the threshold that drivers could be charged with excessive speeding, defined as driving at least 31 mph over the posted limit. The new law lowers that threshold to 26 mph over the limit.
Quinn also didn't want Illinois to fall behind other states with faster speed limits, fearing it could interfere with commerce, according to an assistant.
There was a direct political consideration as well. The measure passed earlier this year with veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate. So if Quinn had decided to reject or change the bill, he could have faced yet another high-profile standoff with legislators already angry at him for withholding their pay over inaction on the pension crisis.
"I'm very pleased that he saw fit to sign it," said sponsoring Sen. Jim Oberweis, R-Sugar Grove. "I believe that this is one small step to help bring Illinois into the 21st century along with most of the other states in this country that have speed limits of 70 or higher."
State Transportation Department officials estimate it will cost $150,000 to $200,000 to update about 900 speed limit signs across Illinois. Tollway officials said they expect to spend nearly $18,000 on new signs.
The price isn't the cost critics of the law are concerned about.
"Raising speed limits is politically popular, and higher speed limits get people to their destinations faster," said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "But we have to recognize there's always a safety trade-off. There's no free lunch. And more people will die on the roads as a result."
Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor said his concern is maintaining a continuity between all the surrounding counties.
The Kennedy Expressway (Interstate 90), he said, runs through several counties, and he doesn't think it would be fair for each county to impose a different speed limit.
"It will be something we will be studying," Lawlor said. "It seems, in talking to my peers in Cook and the collar counties, we are all in kind of an evaluation mode."
Will County board member Walter Adamic, D-Joliet, said he expects the board's discussion will center on safety.
"I don't notice that too many people are following the speed limit now," Adamic said. "If you raise it, instead of going 70 or 72, will they go 77?"
A DuPage County official said the law does not affect the county's highway system and that 55 mph remains the maximum speed limit along the county's roadways.
Similarly, a Cook County spokeswoman said it appears few roads would fall under the rural four-lane highway category, adding that many of the speed limits on those county roads are in the 45-50 mph range.
Supporters of the higher limit applauded Quinn's decision to sign the bill despite his earlier reservations.
"I think it shows the governor and the legislature that voted for it took a thoughtful approach to managing speed on Illinois roadways," said John Bowman, spokesman for the National Motorists Association. "It's a move in the right direction because interstate speeds and highway speeds have been artificially set too low for years."
Studies have shown that most people have their own internal speed limit beyond which they don't feel comfortable driving, he said. That can change based on the type of roadway, but on open highways the average speed of 85 percent of drivers is no more than around 72 to 75 miles per hour.
"They (most drivers) tend to reach the maximum speed at which they feel comfortable and safe and don't go beyond it," Bowman said. "I would bet that on the rural interstates in Illinois, people are already traveling at 72 to 75, people are already at the 85th percentile range."
Some Chicago-area drivers weren't keen on the speed limit increase.
Lauren Sweet, 19, said her commute from Channahon to Hinsdale has given her a front-row seat to speed limit scofflaws. She said she worries that raising the limit will only prompt drivers to go faster.
"It's a bad idea," she said. "I think it's too fast. People will think they can drive over 70 miles per hour. I have a little sister who is learning to drive, and I am concerned about her safety on the road, too."
Tribune reporters Lisa Black, Andy Grimm and Hal Dardick and freelance writer Joseph Ruzich contributed.