By TRAVIS MORSE
---- — Editor’s note: This is the first story in a two-part series on new laws set to be enacted in 2014.
MT. VERNON — A measure to increase the state speed limit to 70 miles per hour is one of the more than 200 new state laws set to take effect Jan. 1.
Illinois State Police Sgt. Matt Boerwinkle said it’s too early to tell how the new speed limit will impact traffic enforcement. Still, public safety remains the “number one concern” for state police, he said.
“The Illinois State Police will continue to enforce the speed limits in the same manner we have in the past,” said
Boerwinkle, a public information officer.
Senate Bill 2356 raises the existing speed limit from 65 mph to 70 mph on most interstates and toll highways.
Eight counties with congested highways can opt out of the new speed limit by approving an ordinance. These counties include Cook, the collar counties around Chicago, Madison and St. Clair.
According to an Illinois Senate Republicans document outlining the new laws, the speed limit change brings Illinois in line with most of the rest of the U.S.
Currently, there are 34 states with speed limits of 70 mph or higher, 15 states with limits of 75 mph and one state with a limit of 85 mph, the document states.
State Sen. Jim Oberweis, R-Sugar Grove, the bill’s lead sponsor, said the former speed limit law was a “bad law” because it was “widely ignored” by motorists.
One of the goals of the new legislation is to have all motorists traveling at a similar rate of speed, without much variation, Oberweis said. This results in safer roadways, he said.
“It’s not speed that causes traffic accidents. It’s variation in speeds,” Oberweis said.
Even so, State Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, said he voted against the measure because it could present a danger to motorists by permitting trucks to travel at a higher rate of speed.
With the current speed limit, police typically allow a grace period of 5 to 8 mph over the limit before they issue a ticket, Luechtefeld said.
This means the new 70 mph limit could lead to vehicles traveling at 75 mph, he said. And fast-moving trucks, in particular, can be dangerous due to their considerable “force” and “power,” he said.
“It gets to the point where it’s too fast,” Luechtefeld said.
Authorities say it may take until mid-January before interstate speed limit signs are changed to reflect the new law.
To go along with the higher limit, speeding penalties were also strengthened. Speeding 26 mph over the posted limit is now a Class B misdemeanor, and speeding 35 mph or more over the limit is a Class A misdemeanor.
Another new traffic law for 2014 bans the use of hand-held cell phone devices while driving. It also goes into effect Jan. 1.
The state already has a law prohibiting texting and driving. The new legislation, though, goes a step further and bans all talking on cell phones while driving, unless you are using hands-free technology.
“Distracted driving is very dangerous,” said State Rep. John D’Amico, D-Chicago, the lead sponsor of House Bill 1247. “I think it’s something that adds to the accidents on our roadways.”
Violators of the law will be fined a maximum of $75 for a first offense, $100 for a second offense, $125 for a third offense and $150 for a fourth or subsequent offense.
Not included in the ban are Bluetooth headsets, earpieces and voice activated commands.
Also, law enforcement officers, first responders, drivers reporting emergencies and drivers using devices while parked on the shoulder are exempt from the legislation.
“The bottom line is we need to concentrate on keeping our hands on the wheel and our eyes on the road,” D’Amico said.
Boerwinkle said cell phone use while driving has become a major safety concern for police and the public.
“We support motorists taking every precaution to ensure their safety and the safety of other motorists on the roadway by adhering to the new cell phone ban,” Boerwinkle said.
D’Amico said it will likely take some time before the cell phone ban is universally followed by motorists.
He compared the ban to the seat belt law. When that law was first passed, many motorists were not wearing seat belts. Today, however, the compliance rate in Illinois is more than 90 percent, D’Amico said.
“I think it’s a very important law,” D’Amico said of the cell phone ban.