CHICAGO | Motorists will be able to drive a little faster on Illinois' rural interstates under legislation signed into law Monday by Gov. Pat Quinn, a move that puts Illinois in line with dozens of states that already have a 70 mph or higher speed limit.
The law, effective in January, is targeted toward roadways in less populated areas and bumps up the speed limit from the current 65 mph. Eight counties with urban areas, including Chicago's Cook County, can opt out.
The Illinois State Police and Quinn's transportation chief opposed the increase, arguing higher speeds would translate into more accidents, but neither pushed their objections Monday. The measure had wide support on both sides of the aisle.
Quinn focused on keeping Illinois in line with regional and national trends. Several of Illinois' neighboring states — Indiana, Iowa and Missouri — already have speed limits at 70 mph or more.
"This limited five 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. "I encourage all motorists to continue to respect our traffic laws, avoid distractions and exercise common sense behind the wheel to protect the safety of themselves and others."
The Chicago Democrat had been mum on his plans and didn't host a bill-signing event as he often does for high-profile issues. His approval even surprised some bill sponsors.
Backers had pushed the measure as a way to improve safety as most drivers already travel over posted speeds.
"What's the most dangerous is the disparity in speed," said Democratic state Rep. Jerry Costello II, a sponsor and former police officer.
He and fellow sponsor Republican state Sen. Jim Oberweis said the increase would create a more even traffic flow.
The Illinois law applies to four-lane divided highways and allows state officials some discretion — for instance if a roadway is old and can't handle high speeds.
Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary spokeswoman Jae Miller praised a provision that lowers how much speeders can be over the limit — from 31 mph to 26 mph — before they can be charged with a misdemeanor.
"Lowering the speed threshold for reckless driving is good road safety policy," Miller said in a statement. "We are also encouraged that the law allows certain counties to opt-out and set a lower speed limit based on local needs."
Illinois State Police Director Hiram Grau released a nearly identical statement.
Congress scrapped the often-ignored federal limits of 55 mph on most roads and 65 mph on rural interstates. The federal law had been passed to reduce fuel consumption after the 1973 oil embargo, and safety advocates lauded it for the subsequent drop in deaths and injuries.
But the 1995 repeal was pushed by lawmakers who were angered by what they said was federal officials overstepping states' rights.
Opponents of raising Illinois' limit said it merely puts those already speeding into a higher bracket.
"Drivers choose a speed at which they don't think they'll be stopped or ticketed, usually that's five or 10 miles over the speed limit," said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "Study after study shows that there is always a safety trade-off when you raise the speed limit."
A 2009 study in the American Journal of Public Health examined traffic fatalities that happened between the federal speed limit being dropped and 2005, finding a 3.2 percent increase in deaths attributable to the higher speed limits. The increase was highest on rural interstates, jumping 9.1 percent. The study estimated more than 12,500 deaths were attributable to the increased limits.