Peoria Journal Star

January 9, 2004

State rated average in safety laws

By Dori Meinert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Illinois' tough laws on drunk drivers were praised by a highway safety group Thursday, but the state could do more to protect child passengers, teen drivers and motorcyclists, the group said.

Overall, Illinois was rated average in most categories of state highway safety laws in a study funded by the insurance industry.

"We're trying to highlight the fact that there are a lot of laws out there that need to be passed," said Judith Lee Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington-based coalition of insurance companies, and consumer, health and safety groups that produced the report.

By emphasizing the wide variations in state traffic safety laws, the group hopes to encourage uniform laws to reduce the number of traffic fatalities and injuries.

Nationwide, road fatalities increased to 42,815 in 2002 from 42,196 in 2001, according to federal government figures cited in the report. Drunk driving and motorcycle-related deaths were up. The number of teen drivers killed in crashes increased. More than half the passengers killed in motor vehicle crashes were not wearing a seat belt.

Illinois had 1,411 people killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2002, down slightly from 1,414 in 2001 and the same as in 2000, according to the coalition.

"I welcome the ranking so we can see how we can improve," said State Sen. John Cullerton, D-Chicago, a leading advocate for traffic safety in the state.

But he disputed the study's contention that Illinois has a gap in its child restraint laws.

The coalition contends that children younger than 4 aren't required to be in a child safety seat if the driver is not the parent - unless the parent provides the safety seat.

However, Cullerton, who authored the provision, said the parent can be charged in that situation and that children are being adequately protected.

"Children are always at the mercy of their parents," he said.

The Illinois General Assembly last year passed three major traffic safety laws. Adults can now be stopped and ticketed solely for not wearing a seatbelt. Children up to age 8 are now required to use booster seats, instead of age 4 as previously required. In addition, inexperienced drivers under age 18 are limited to just one passenger with some exceptions.

The coalition also recommends that states restrict teens' nighttime driving, require six months of supervised driving experience, and mandate 30 to 50 hours of behind-the-wheel training with an adult, licensed driver.

Illinois doesn't have those requirements. Student drivers get 25 hours behind-the-wheel experience with an adult as part of their driver's education course, Illinois State Police Lt. Lincoln Hampton said.

Coalition officials urged Illinois to require motorcycle riders to wear helmets, a move they said would reduce deaths. Illinois had a helmet law from 1969 to 1971, but it was declared unconstitutional by the Illinois Supreme Court. While the court later reversed itself, the opposition has been too great to enact another helmet law, Cullerton said.

The group applauded Illinois for enacting laws imposing strict penalties for drunk driving.