New tougher laws designed to make roads safer

 
 
  • Road construction workers will be more protected under a law scheduled to take effect June 1.

    Road construction workers will be more protected under a law scheduled to take effect June 1. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • A law starting Jan. 1 will require some first-time DUI offenders to check their alcohol level, using an ignition interlock device, before they can start their car.

    A law starting Jan. 1 will require some first-time DUI offenders to check their alcohol level, using an ignition interlock device, before they can start their car. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

Published: 5/23/2008 12:13 AM

Under the new law, a person is automatically assumed to be driving recklessly if traveling more than 20 mph over the posted speed limit or driving drunk through a school or construction zone.

Drivers speeding through one of the many highway construction areas this summer may want to think about Jeff Heath.

The Illinois Department of Transportation construction worker from downstate Jersey County was directing traffic nearly two years ago when he was struck and killed by a speeding pickup truck and trailer that lost control.

The truck driver was cited for the accident but avoided jail time because he was not charged with reckless homicide with a vehicle.

That changes June 1 when "Jeff's Law" goes into effect. It gives judges and juries the ability to assess jail time for drivers who hit and kill someone while speeding in construction and school zones.

It's one of two new laws poised to take effect in the next seven months that add muscle to fighting both drunken driving and work-zone accidents.

The second is the interlock DUI law, which begins Jan. 1 and requires some people convicted of their first drunken driving offense to blow into a Breathalyzer device before their car will start.

The aim of both, said Mike Claffey, an IDOT spokesman, is to reduce preventable accidents that result in fatalities.

"People need to slow down and be very aware of their surroundings because there are a variety of conditions that could hurt and kill people," Claffey said.

Work-zone accidents have fallen in recent years, Claffey said, but officials are looking for even more improvement.

In 2003, Illinois had 44 work-zone fatalities, including five workers. Last year, the numbers fell to 21 and two respectively.

An average 7,000 crashes in highway work zones occur annually in Illinois, resulting in 2,600 injuries.

"Jeff's Law" clarifies earlier laws designed to protect construction workers and students in predetermined "safe zones," officials said.

Under the new law, a person is automatically assumed to be driving recklessly if traveling more than 20 mph over the posted speed limit or driving drunk through a school or construction zone.

Work-zone speed limits are 45 mph, unless otherwise posted.

If the offense takes place in a school zone and a person is struck and killed, the driver would be charged with a felony and could get up to five years in prison. If the offense occurs in a construction zone -- where speeds are higher and the chance of fatalities greater -- the driver would be charged with a felony that could bring up to 14 years behind bars.

Currently, drivers cited for speeding in a work zone pay a minimum $300 ticket.

Officials said the new law will add teeth to existing work-zone laws where it previously was tough to prove a person was acting recklessly when speeding.

The more stringent law comes at a time when northern Illinois faces a tough road-construction season. Several large-scale projects, including those on the Tri-State Tollway and Edens Expressway, are under way.

It's part of a crackdown that began in 2003 and led to implementation of roving work-zone speed enforcement vans outfitted with video cameras. Those vans have issued more than 6,500 citations since 2006.

State Sen. William Haine of Alton, the chief sponsor of the bill, said this law should help stop drivers from acting recklessly in school and construction zones and further reduce fatalities.

"Prior to this law, to be prosecuted for reckless homicide, the motorist had to be impaired," Haine said. "Now a jury may find a motorist guilty because of excessive speed alone. This will deter people from speeding excessively through a construction zone."

The second law is designed to change the habits of those who drink and drive.

The ignition interlock law is trumpeted by state officials as one of the toughest DUI laws in the country.

Under the new law, first-time offenders can be forced by a judge to install a Breathalyzer device in their car. It requires the driver to blow into the machine before starting the vehicle.

The device would replace judicial driving permits and, instead, the driver would be issued a monitoring device drivers permit.

The special judicial permit was created to allow first-time offenders who have their license suspended for DUI to continue driving to and from work.

The ignition interlock device won't allow the car to start if the driver fails the breath test. It is illegal for anyone else riding in the car to blow into the unit to start the car, and for the impaired driver to operate any vehicle that does not have an interlock device.

Officials with Mothers Against Drunk Driving said this device is the "holy grail" needed to get repeat offenders off the road.

"We don't have to worry about human nature changing in order to stop driving drunk," said MADD spokesman David Malham. "Science, in this case, is trumping human nature."

In New Mexico, where first-time offenders are required to install interlock devices, there has been a 50 percent to 90 percent reduction in repeat drunken driving offenders, Malham said.

"We are absolutely and totally in favor of this new law," he said. "Having this device installed is like having a cop in the car. It forces people to change their behavior."

In Illinois, offenders will pay for the device and its installation, as well as a monthly charge for the service. The cost depends on the manufacturer and the mechanic doing the installation.

The cost can range up to $200 to install and up to $100 in monthly rental fees.

The device will remain on the person's car for the length of the sentence.

Nationwide, more than 30,000 drivers convicted of their first DUI could be affected in the first year. Officials say 83 percent of people arrested for DUI are first-time offenders.

Also, the device is expected to reduce by 500 the number of drunken driving accidents in Illinois each year. About 40 percent of those accidents are fatalities.

Those numbers could decrease significantly in coming years, officials said, as motorists change their habits to avoid the device.

"Studies have shown that when a person is arrested for a DUI, that driver has actually driven under the influence more than 80 times before getting caught," Malham said. "This device will go a long way to reducing that number, too. It'll force people to change their habits."