Illinois traffic fatalities are up this year: What to do about it?


Can you find anything “bad” or “could use improvement” about the design of this intersection between Ogden Avenue and an on-ramp to northbound Kennedy Expressway? There are clues in Notes below. 

Two weeks ago, a commenter asked about the LED signs on Illinois highways. This article from the Chicago Tribune tells what they’re showing:

When travel times and Amber alerts aren’t being shown on electronic message boards, a running tally of traffic deaths in Illinois is often displayed along highways across the state to remind motorists about the consequences of dangerous driving.

What are the other factors at play in this increase? Does dangerous design have a role? Or economic factors?

On Saturday, August 11, I went with a friend on the CTA Blue Line to Forest Park with our bikes; we got on the Illinois Prairie Path just a few hundred feet away from the train terminal, inside a cemetery. The bike ride was a reminder to me of the persistent road and trail design inconsistencies, within cities, within states, and across the country. I went on a road trip to Richmond, Virginia, during which I drove on the highways and local roads of 5 states. It seemed to me that the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), a federal document that every road, path, and bike lane builder in the country must follow (or obtain exemptions from), was lost or deleted.

In the 40 mile round trip cycling trip from Forest Park to 2.5 miles northwest of Wheaton, I encountered a couple of oddities, including at one sign whose presence might be illegal.

The first sign in question says “Dangerous Curves”; unfortunately I don’t have a photo of this. I think there are two views you can take on the presence of this sign. It was placed here to reduce the city’s liability in the case of a crash caused by these so-called dangerous curves in the road. The second view is that it may increase the city’s liability in the case of a crash because the city knew the road design was dangerous but didn’t rectify it. Why would a dangerous road be built? If it’s known to be dangerous, remove it or repair it.


The second sign in question was in Lombard (shown above), directed at Illinois Prairie Path users, at approximately 325 S Main Street. It says, “Pedestrians must yield to all lanes of traffic”. As Grid Chicago readers have learned, it’s been state law since summer 2010 that drivers and cyclists in roadways must stop for pedestrians in marked and unmarked crosswalks, not the other way around. The signs should be removed and new signs should be added in the roadway, as has happened across town, that tell road users of their required behavior.

Of course, neither of these address the original statement of this article: traffic fatalities (of all road user types) are up in Illinois. It’s unknown if either of these “design oddities” have led to a fatality. Grid Chicago has been making the case since our inception that design affects behavior. With our Fatality Tracker series, we’re collecting information on how people have died. I don’t believe that many of the traffic fatalities this year were caused by people engaged in dangerous driving. I believe people want to do the opposite, but our actions are hampered by the feedback we receive, or don’t receive, from other users of the road, and the feedback we gather from a road’s particular design. (In some cases, though, like the recent Megabus fatal crash, it may seem that some drivers are too much in a hurry.)

The Chicago Tribune article also says:

Through June of this year, 70 people have died in traffic crashes in the city, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation. There were 52 fatalities during the first six months of 2011, CDOT said. The recent highest six-month toll in Chicago was in 2007, when traffic crashes killed 92 people, CDOT said.

I read recently that the Oregon Transportation Commission, with 5 members appointed by the governor who create the policies of the Oregon Department of Transportation, are proposing to spend 80% of the department’s budget on maintenance. This is a great idea: what use are roads and bike lanes when they are in shambles, and money is being spent on new infrastructure?

Transportation officials attributed the higher death toll in part to an increase in driving this year, which was likely sparked by mild weather early in 2012. While the number of vehicle miles traveled on roads in Illinois decreased over the past few years, partially because of the weak economy and high fuel prices, vehicle miles increased 0.69 percent through the first six months of 2012, IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell said.

The price of gas is related to the amount of driving we perform, and the amount of driving we perform is closely related to how many crashes and fatalities occur. But the three components don’t need to be so closely linked. We can reduce crashes and fatalities without having to futz with gas prices. To achieve vision zero, which the leaders of the Chicago and state DOTs have expressed they want, we could increase the gas tax and use those revenues to better support non-driving options, like transit and cycling, to give people more (and safer) options than now. Or we could increase our efforts on improving education on “getting around” (not just for drivers, but for all citizens) and design. As I said at the CNU Happy Hour in June, we must be continually upgrading and experimenting.


If a sign is outdated or not meeting current standards, it is the responsibility of the transportation with jurisdiction to remove it immediately. Signs only enhance our road system’s navigability so much, and unneeded signs are just that. In Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic, he references research about signs that show that people only look for or see a sign when they expect it to be there. For example, at an intersection, people tend to look for a stop sign or another sign that controls how they enter the intersection. Additionally, the continual and overbearing presence of signs reduces our attention to them.

About the Ogden/Kennedy intersection: I reviewed the crash data and found fewer than expected crashes here. None of them had an injury, and there was a single automobile-pedestrian crash, from 2005-2010. I hypothesize that the extremely low amounts of walking and biking traffic is the cause for the single crash, but I predicted that because of the wide lanes, low visibility/limited sight lines, no-stop, high-speed right turns, and no-stop, high-speed left turns, there would be more crashes and injuries. There were 16 crashes from 2005-2010 here. Perhaps avoiding a crash is a reaction to the bad design. There’s some research that suggests when you remove all traffic controls, or make visibility low, that people will “crawl” through the situation, expecting the unexpected.

For the crashes with causes that were more descriptive than “not applicable”, “unable to determine”, or “unknown”, they included (crash data does not include information as to the extent of property damage):

  • Following too closely
  • Driving skills/knowledge/experience (assuming a “lack of” or “inaccurate knowledge”
  • Disregarding traffic signals
  • Exceeding safe speed for conditions
  • Failing to reduce speed to avoid crash (this is indicative of “exceeding safe speed for conditions” and “following too closely”)
  • and Operating vehicle in erractic, reckless, careless, negligent or aggressive manner

It may be the same reasons listed above that people who are walking and cycling take alternate routes. This poses a chicken versus the egg situation: which comes first, cyclists and pedestrians who will take risks and travel down this street, slowly increasing and beginning the “safety in numbers effect” (.pdf), or does a street that appears to be safe attract more cycling and walking traffic?

Further reading: Check out How Danes make right turns for a look at protected phase crossings and turns at intersections in Copenhagen, Denmark. I am leaving Copenhagen today for Amsterdam, via overnight train.

14 thoughts on “Illinois traffic fatalities are up this year: What to do about it?”

  1. some research that suggests when you remove all traffic controls, or make visibility low, that people will “crawl” through the situation, expecting the unexpected.

    When I lived in Rogers Park, I regularly passed through two intersections that some friends assumed would be crash magnets. I found them to be the opposite. Because sightlines are so obstructed at Estes and Greenview, the vast majority of people tend to be cautious passing through. I’ve also seen and heard about very few accidents at South Blvd. and Callan in Evanston, where the traffic flow seems to work pretty well.

    1. The accidents near South/Callan instead happen slightly south at Oakton/Callan, where cars go screaming around the corner and eastbound vehicles slam into the wall of the Metra tracks.

      1. I don’t really think “safer cars” exist. Compare vehicle “safety” improvements to crash, injury, and fatality data. You cannot attribute changes (reductions or increases) in injuries to any vehicle safety improvement.

  2. Where were the dangerous curves? Typically these tend to be either in places where the topography doesn’t allow for a road to be built to typical standards at a reasonable cost (if there’s such topography in Illinois I’d love to find it), the fact that the road was designed pre-automobile (or pre-automobile with more than 20 hp) or both.

  3. I would like to see a campaign to educate the public that stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks is the law. Nobody seems to know or care. I can stand in the street while 20 cars go by, and it’s likely none of them will stop. And when I’m driving and I do stop for a pedestrian, sometimes other drivers swerve to pass me and nearly hit the pedestrian. And the pedestrians always look really surprised and thank me, when actually I was just following the law not doing them a favor. The neon signs are great, but I think we need to educate everyone about crosswalks because we can’t post a sign at every last one (or can we?).

    1. A raised crosswalk would be a good solution. Not only would it make pedestrians more visible by placing them higher than street level, but it would also slow down motorists due to it acting like a speed bump. I like the raised crosswalk and “Stop for Peds” sign on the center line combo, but I do recognize that it is not feasible for every crosswalk in the city.

      1. Wouldn’t that be a problem for emergency vehicles? In my experience, the worst crosswalks are on the arteries because they are busy streets, and these are the same streets that have fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars speeding down them constantly. Raised crosswalks might be less of a hazard on quiet residential streets, but these aren’t the dangerous ones because they aren’t busy. I’m also not a fan of speed bumps in general. But I could see installing raised crosswalks in a few select places where there have been a lot of accidents for whatever reason.

  4. Steven–Have you noticed any increase in the number of police reports that specifically cite distracted driving as a cause of a crash? FocusDriven ( has discussed in recent months that the police are finally making a point to include this information when known.

    1. I unfortunately cannot see police reports as they are produced and logged into the police database. I only see crash data the following year, after IDOT has processed it and made it ready for researchers to review.
      I should receive the 2011 data soon.

      Distracted driving (with electronics) has been a possible cause for police to use in making reports since 2009. They are:
      Cause 40: Distraction – from outside vehicle
      Cause 41: Distraction – from inside vehicle
      Cause 42: Distraction – operating a wireless phone **changed in 2009 to Distraction – electronic communication device (cell phone, texting, etc.) Cause 43: Distraction – other electronic device (navigation device, DVD player, etc.) Added in 2009

  5. I can’t tell from what’s written here whether you’re in acknowledgement of the effect on employment/economy on traffic stats. I.e. when people have jobs to drive to, they drive more. Thus no great surprise that they’ve dropped off starting in 2008.
    And good news for the economy and job outlook if we’ve seen a spike for the first half of 2012.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *