Safe Illinois roads

Drivers head eastbound on I-94 near the Lake Forest Oasis Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013. (Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune / November 27, 2013)

A new study finds that traffic fatalities dropped 30 percent from 2005 to 2012 in Illinois.  

Traffic fatalities have dropped nearly 23 percent nationwide in the same period, according to the study by Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI). 2012 was the last full year data was available.

“The number of road fatalities had increased from the 1990s until 2005,” Sivak explained in an email. “Thereafter we have experienced a large drop.”

The trend is largely due to safer vehicles.

“People are walking away from crashes that would have killed them 20 years ago,” says Russ Rader, spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the losses from automotive crashes.  

Even though technological applications such as front crash prevention systems and lane assist features are helping, the main factor is better built cars. automakers building safer cars as a response to crash testing .

“Automakers are building better crush zones that dissipate energy from the occupant compartment,” Rader says. Safer cars are a response to more involved crash testing by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the IIHS, which conducts the most rigorous safety tests in the industry.

Regulations have improved on vehicle safety dating back to the 1960s, when the federal government mandated seat belts in vehicles. Wearing seat belts can reduce the risk of injuries by 50 percent, according to the National Safety Council.

The latest safety mandate, however, may have the biggest impact on vehicle road safety.

“Electronic stability control (ESC) is a lifesaver,” says Rader. Mandated in all 2012 model year vehicles, ESC is based on antilock braking systems and continuously monitors how a vehicle is responding to a driver’s steering and acceleration. In the case of fishtailing, understeering or oversteering, ESC helps keep a vehicle on the path intended by its steering wheel position. In essence, it takes over when you lose control.

“It prevents a lot of crashes that happen on slippery roads or in emergency situations, especially in preventing roll-over crashes,” Rader explains. “9 out of 10 accidents are from drivers messing up.”

Improved regulation and enforcement of the roadways have also helped reduce traffic fatalities, especially in Illinois, where Secretary of State Jesse White cites policies ranging from Graduated Driver’s License to cell phone bans in construction and school zones in bringing Illinois road safety above the curve.

“My mission is to make Illinois roads the safest ever,” says White, who was elected in 1998 and is Illinois’ longest serving Secretary of State.

In addition to the GDL, which has reduced teen driving accidents 60 percent by protracting the licensing process and making it more rigorous, the Secretary of State introduced the Breath Alcohol Ignition Interlock Device (BAIID) on first-time DUI or DWI offenders. Before starting his car, the offender has to blow into a breathalyzer equipped with a camera. BAIID remains for a period ranging from 3 months to 12 months, depending on the judges’ discretion. There has been a 40 percent reduction in DWI and DUI since the policy was implemented in 2009, White says.

Other initiatives to make roadways safer are seat belt enforcement, a ban on texting while driving, and suspended licenses for speeders exceeding 40 mph over the posted speed limit.  

“We take away 700,000 licenses a year,” says the former CPS teacher and paratrooper in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. There are 8.9 million registered licenses.

Red light and speeding cameras reduce accidents as well, Rader of the IIHS says about Illinois. “They can be controversial, but they also work.”

Another reason for the dramatic drop in traffic fatalities is out of the hands of automakers and regulators: the economy.

“Every time there’s a recession, traffic fatalities drop,” Rader says.

People aren’t working as much and aren’t driving as much during a recession. In his study, Sivak took that into consideration by measuring fatality rates per distance driven and fatality rates per population in 2005 and 2012. In both cases, fatalities dropped nationwide by 22 percent for distance driven and 27 percent by population; in Illinois, the decline from 2005 was nearly 28 percent for distance driven and over 30 percent by population.

While traffic fatalities tend to increase after a recession, Rader and the IIHS “don’t expect they will reach the same number of fatalities in the year before the recession.”

rduffer@tribune.com

Twitter: @DufferRobert