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State troopers pounce from toll plazas on seat belt scofflaws
By Jake Griffin | Daily Herald Staff

Illinois State Police Trooper Dave Dickson stands behind a tollbooth on I-88, watching for motorists not wearing seat belts.

 

Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

A passenger in this car who wasn't wearing her seat belt was ticketed by Illinois State Police Trooper Dave Dickson as part of May's "Click It or Ticket" enforcement campaign.

 

Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

Unsuspecting motorists along Illinois' tollways have to watch out for Illinois State Police Trooper Dave Dickson and his colleagues who stake out toll plazas on occasion to enforce seat belt laws.

 

Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

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Published: 6/8/2009 11:33 AM

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Buckling down
Year 2009 2008
Seat belt tickets 1,301 1,206
Child seat tickets 111 149
Source: Illinois State Police citations issued on tollways for seat belt and child restraint violations during the "Click It or Ticket" campaigns, May 15-31, 2008 and 2009.
Selt belt scofflaws snared on holidays
Year 2009 2008 2007 2006
Tickets 718 482 397 214
Source: Illinois State Police results during the four-day Memorial Day weekend special enforcement campaigns to snare seat belt scofflaws.

Terrance Little thought a brief stop at the toll plaza would cost him 80 cents.

But it wasn't brief, and it was far more costly.

Illinois State Police Trooper Dave Dickson spotted Little without his seat belt buckled during a recent seat belt enforcement dragnet at the Meyers Road toll plaza along I-88. Troopers from District 15 - the law enforcement arm of the Illinois Tollway Authority - use the cover of toll booths to play a game of hide-and-seek with seat belt scofflaws.

"It's pointless for me to argue about it right here," Little said. "I kind of saw him when I pulled up, but I couldn't tell what he was up to."

The Chicago man claimed he simply unbuckled to fumble for toll change. But Dickson saw it as a safety hazard. Twelve minutes later Little was back on the road with a $55 ticket to start his weekend.

Everyone has an excuse, Dickson says. The most common is that they just got on the tollway.

"Then we find out they're coming from Naperville, which is pretty far away," he said. "Honesty is always the best policy. It may not get you out of a ticket, but it depends on the circumstances."

It took Dickson less than a minute to catch his first seat belt violator during the recent toll plaza stakeout, which District 15 officials invited the Daily Herald to observe. It was part of the statewide "Click It or Ticket" seat belt enforcement campaign.

This year's campaign that ran from May 15 to May 31 resulted in 1,301 seat belt citations. Many of those tickets were issued during toll plaza dragnets.

"Usually, they're angry with us," Dickson said. "They disagree and say it's their personal choice to wear a seat belt or not. It's not a choice, though."

Courts require advanced notice of some roadside safety checkpoints, but not for these. Trooper Eddie Perez said toll plaza stakeouts are often decided upon the day they occur. Perez and Dickson often work together. Most stakeouts last about an hour, and they usually ticket between five and 10 motorists apiece.

Perez pulled Wisconsin resident Adel Alshan over for a seat belt violation during the same stakeout. He wasn't happy.

"I'm a nuclear engineer, and I know what safety is," he said. "There are other ways they could be spending their time."

Perez also pulled over Richton Park resident Paulette Henry, who told him she had pulled into the cash lanes despite having an I-Pass transponder because a warning light came on indicating one of the back doors had become ajar. She got out to close it and didn't buckle up by the time she got to the toll collector.

"He would have seen that if he wasn't so busy trying to be sneaky and hiding behind there," she complained.

But after running her driver's license through the system, Perez surprised her by letting her go with a warning.

"She had the I-Pass, she had kids in the back seat, her story made sense, so I let her go," he said.

Troopers and officers from municipal police departments often use toll plazas to conduct seat belt enforcement campaigns. The Memorial Day weekend, Friday to Monday, sees one of the biggest pushes along the 286 miles of Illinois toll roads, and it's clear troopers have gotten increasingly aggressive in recent years. In 2006, troopers issued 214 seat belt tickets during the Memorial Day weekend. This year, the four-day span resulted in 718 citations.

"People are actually wearing them more," said District 15 spokesman Sgt. Jim Jenkner. "But some of (the additional ticketing) has to do with the increase in available manpower."

Troopers say seat belts save lives and reduce insurance costs to Illinois residents. Studies in the early 1990s of the impact of the state's 1985 mandatory seat belt law showed usage reduced serious injuries by roughly 500 per month.

Many special seat belt enforcement campaigns are funded by state and federal safety grants that pay for personnel or overtime costs. Critics complain the increased emphasis is also due to the fine being increased $25, to $55, a few years ago.

"It's probably harder to get out of these kinds of tickets where they're right at the toll plaza than if they spotted you while they're driving, too," said defense attorney Joe Bugos. "They're right there and that's all they're doing."

State Rep. Sid Mathias of Buffalo Grove is the Republican spokesman for the House Tollway Oversight Committee. He believes as long as troopers don't turn toll plazas into daily seat belt sting sites, the operations are a good idea.

"These are traffic enforcement units," he said. "It's not like these troopers are tasked with solving crimes, and it's not like we're pulling people off the streets and away from other things."

The cash lanes at a toll plaza provide the easiest target for troopers. They get a direct look into the approaching car from behind the toll booth and can easily spot an unbuckled driver or passenger. Because the car has to stop to pay the toll, it's a fairly safe collar as well.

However, Jenkner said some troopers on foot will stop cars going through 15 mph I-Pass lanes at off-ramps, but never in Open Road Tolling lanes.

"Fortunately, we've never had an incident where a trooper is struck, as far as these enforcements go," he said.

Oak Brook-based defense attorney Kathryn Harry said the practice sounds "dangerous."

"There are rules about pedestrians on ramps," she said. "I wouldn't consider them non-pedestrians, especially if they're on foot, and there's no indication that a trooper is going to be standing behind a pillar."

Perez said about 60 percent of the seat belt stops result in other citations. He said it could be for excessively tinted windows, a cracked windshield, no insurance or any other type of infraction.

"It's a great safety campaign, but it's also great for probable cause searches," Bugos said. "My advice is to buckle up, save some lives and P.S., you'll avoid an arrest."

Dickson said they'll often perform these types of stakeouts at night in an effort to nab drunken drivers, too.

But these campaigns sometimes result in felony arrests as well, which is how Dickson and Perez ended this one.

The troopers arrested an 18-year-old Robbins man after they uncovered nearly a half-pound of marijuana and a .38-caliber handgun loaded with six hollow-point bullets hidden behind the car's glove box.

Perez still wrote him up for the seat belt violation.