Dec. 13--Early in his 27-year career as an Illinois state trooper, Rich Decker got an education in the real speed limits on Illinois interstates.
At two hearings in Cook County traffic court, the judges ordered drivers to stand if they'd been ticketed for 70 mph or less, he recalled. Each time, about 20 people stood. Each time, the judges immediately dismissed their tickets.
"That taught me a lesson a long time ago," said Decker, who retired in September. "I know that my tolerance level turned to 80 (mph). But I could still go out and pound out 10 tickets a night, no problem."
A Chicago Tribune analysis of state ticket data shows that Decker's high threshold for speeding still exists among troopers and motorists. Posted limits on most Chicago-area interstates are 55 mph, but the data suggest the real speed limit in that zone -- the point at which most drivers get a ticket -- is closer to 80 mph.
That glaring discrepancy may be exacerbated by a drastic decline in the number of troopers patrolling for interstate speeders -- reflected in fewer speeding tickets issued in recent years. Some troopers said extensive swaths of interstate highways are left largely unpatrolled.
The data raise questions about whether speed limits are enforceable in Illinois, which is set to raise those limits to 70 mph on many interstates mostly outside metro Chicago. And it brings up the possibility of a controversial speed-enforcement technology, speed-measuring cameras, already in use on Chicago streets and highway construction zones.
The ticket analysis follows an earlier Tribune review of state speed studies that found most Illinois Tollway drivers travel faster than 66 mph in the 55-mph zones that were studied. In some stretches, 1 in 7 drivers sped at least 20 mph over the limit.
Both reviews suggest an uneasy truce between most area drivers and troopers patrolling interstates. Most drivers stay below 75 mph, while troopers typically pick off the fastest drivers who push beyond that -- leaving the numbers posted on white signs beside the road largely irrelevant.
The 'real' limit
Officers are reminded to be "charitable to the inadvertent violator," typically a driver traveling at up to 9 mph over the limit, said retired Trooper Mark Meiresonne, who patrolled areas of eastern and western Illinois until he retired in 2007. At 10 mph over the limit, the Illinois State Police manual mandates that a trooper write a ticket, Meiresonne said.
But that rarely happens on area interstates.
The Tribune's latest review examined state police speeding tickets on interstates in the six-county metro area over the past four years. It found that in 55-mph zones, troopers wrote 85 percent of speeding tickets to drivers at 75 mph and higher. The majority of tickets -- 60 percent -- were written to motorists traveling 80 mph or faster.
Past and present troopers told the Tribune that such tolerance has long been a part of speed enforcement.
Mike Powell patrolled the interstates from 1989 to 1999. Now president of the troopers union, Illinois Troopers Lodge 41, Powell said he "would agree" that the real, enforced interstate speed limit is 80 mph.
"I didn't even pay attention to a car unless they were in the upper 70s," Powell added.
A current trooper who has been patrolling Chicago-area interstates for more than 20 years said the unofficial 80 mph limit "sounds about right. There's not much wiggle room after 80," said the trooper, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
It's unclear how the tolerance will be affected by the new law raising interstate speed limits in much of the state to 70 mph. State officials have yet to decide how much, if at all, to raise the limit on most stretches of highway in metro Chicago.
The Tribune analysis does show that, in past years, the 80-mph threshold for tickets seems to hold even in stretches with 65-mph limits.
Illinois State Police spokeswoman Monique Bond said the concentration of tickets at 80 mph might simply mean that officers have decided to target "the most egregious speeds that could cause the most damage."
She also said speeding is one of four crucial traffic safety factors troopers must police, the others being drunken driving, seat belt use and distracted driving. Texting is a particular concern recently, she said, noting that three recent texting details yielded 316 tickets for the violation in a six-hour period.
"You have to be flexible with your strategies and your resources to adapt," Bond said.
The data also suggest that state troopers have their own, unique speed limits.
While the numbers show troopers write most tickets for 80 mph or above in 55-mph zones, not all troopers are forgiving. Some have written citations for as little as a few ticks over the limit, although that can earn them grief from fellow troopers, Decker and others said.
Downstate troopers tend to be a little less tolerant -- primarily because lighter traffic makes it easier to spot speeders -- while Chicago-area troopers are more likely to pick off the fastest in a sea of weaving cars and trucks.
"I would rather just get the higher speeder, which is more dangerous," Decker said, "rather than ticket the lower speeder, which is you and me."
Fewer troopers, tickets
While high tolerances have been around for years, speeders have benefited from a new trend: lower odds of being cited.
Troopers last year totaled an average of 120 speeding tickets a day on metro Chicago tollways and freeways, which is 24 percent lower than the 159 a day written in 2010. At the same time, the number of sworn state police officers dropped 11 percent from 2010 to 2012, according to data the agency provided the FBI.
At the same time, state police have been given additional responsibilities, such as policing casinos, video gambling and Medicaid fraud.
Bond said the agency is still "able to maintain our presence on the interstates and on the roadways."
But Meiresonne said the agency has gotten away from its "core mandate" to patrol interstates and rural highways. "The manpower that is actually allocated to work patrol is abysmal compared to when I was on the job," he added.
The number of troopers on interstates throughout Illinois is "not even close" to being what it should be, Powell said, "to properly enforce the speed laws."
Decker, who called staffing "bare-bones," said stretches of interstate throughout northeastern Illinois -- including those in Kane, Lake, McHenry, Grundy and Kendall counties -- are severely short-staffed. That not only makes it less likely a trooper will see a speeder but can complicate a trooper's response when he or she spots a speeder.
Traffic stops can quickly turn violent -- officers never know if they are approaching a wanted killer -- and troopers at times may let speeders pass when the officer is aware that no other troopers are nearby to provide backup.
The lack of stops, in turn, can embolden speeders.
"A lot of the problems would be solved if we had more bodies," Decker said. "If you don't see (law enforcement) day after day, that fear of getting caught quickly vanishes."
Other factors include lagging morale brought by staff cuts, working without a contract since June 2012 and the pending overhaul of public employees' pensions, troopers said. A small percentage of troopers may simply decline to make a traffic stop on any given day, Powell said.
"Eventually," he said, "you go, 'Wait a minute. I've been doing more with less for 10 years, and it's not getting better. Screw this.' That's where we're at right now. Guys are just burning out, leaving."
With fewer troopers -- and more advances in technology -- the possibility arises for a solution that can make some drivers shiver: speed cameras.
Illinois already allows speed cameras in construction zones, and Chicago posts them near some schools and parks. One powerful lawmaker said he'd be open to considering expanding their use to other parts of the interstate system.
State Rep. John D'Amico, D-Chicago, chairs the House Transportation Committee and says he "could see it targeting excessive speeders.
"But I would have to see what the criteria are," D'Amico added. "I don't think we want people getting a ticket for going 56 miles an hour."
The insurance industry argues that speed cameras help prod drivers to slow down and save lives. Its main research arm, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, points to a study that found highway deaths in France have dropped 10 percent since speed cameras began blanketing that country a decade ago. It also argues that most drivers support cameras.
But the devices have long been controversial, with some states outright banning them amid residents' fears that they are meant solely to pick their pockets.
Other states, including Illinois, have begun allowing them on city streets but have rarely allowed them on open stretches of the interstate system.
Arizona put cameras on interstates in 2008 -- issuing fines to drivers moving at 11 mph or more over the limit -- but discontinued the program in 2010 when a new state director of public safety took office and "was not a fan" of the cameras, said Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Carrick Cook.
Iowa has let cities and villages install permanent speed cameras on interstates, creating cash cows for places such as Cedar Rapids and Sioux City. But a driver backlash led the Iowa Department of Transportation to push rules to restrict cameras only to particularly dangerous stretches of highway, where no other type of engineering fixes or enforcement seems to lower crashes.
Steve Gent, the agency's director of the Office of Traffic and Safety, said cameras shouldn't be gouging people if government can find a cheaper way to increase safety.
Some Illinois troopers also question how effective speed cameras can be. Decker noted that the cameras used in Illinois construction zones often produced poor photos, leading judges to toss the cases.
And he and Powell say that without actual traffic stops, police can't find drivers who lack licenses, are fugitives, ferry drugs or are drunk -- such as the one clocked at 146 mph along Interstate 88 near Aurora last winter. The driver's blood-alcohol level -- much like his speed that night -- was about twice the legal limit, records show. When asked if he'd been drinking alcohol, he mumbled to the trooper, "not enough."
Instead of getting a standard fine in the mail from a speed camera, the man was found guilty of driving under the influence and paid a $2,185 fine.
D'Amico, the Illinois lawmaker, said he has yet to be approached by an agency seeking cameras on interstates.
In the meantime, drivers like Steve Buchholz try to play the odds as best they can.
While he ate a slice of pepperoni pizza at the Lake Forest Oasis above the Tri-State Tollway, Buchholz said he speeds whenever he thinks he can get away with it.
"If I'm on a road I know I'm not going to get caught on," the Round Lake man said, "I put the pedal down, and I want to feel it go."
(c)2013 the Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services