Don’t look now, but Illinois’ highway traffic fatalities have taken a big nosedive since the beginning of the year.
As of Friday, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation, 254 people had lost their lives in fatal crashes on all roadways in the state.
That marks a nearly 25 percent reduction compared with the 336 fatalities from the same date a year ago.
With the year more than one-third over, Illinoisans have reason to celebrate such good news.
What could be the cause?
Here are a few possibilities:
• The ban on drivers using hand-held cellphones took effect Jan. 1. With one less distraction behind the wheel, drivers might be having fewer crashes en route to their destinations.
• Drifting snow, slippery ice and bone-chilling cold might have discouraged drivers from making road trips during parts of January, February and March. Fewer people on the road could have led to fewer crashes.
• The increase in the interstate highway speed limit from 65 to 70 mph also could have been a factor, although it sounds counterintuitive. However, supporters of the 70 mph limit argued that highway safety would improve if more vehicles traveled at the same speed.
• With each passing year, more drivers are in cars with advanced safety features than ever before.
Last year, when 992 people lost their lives in Illinois traffic crashes, the death rate was 2.72 a day.
If the current death rate for 2014 of 1.97 a day continues through December, Illinois is on track to experience a more than 270-person reduction in its death toll, to about 720. That would be just a shade less than the all-time record low, established in 1920, the first year the state began keeping records of fatalities. It would also be the biggest year-to-year decline since 1943.
In fact, deaths resulting from auto crashes have not topped 1,000 since 2008. Before then, annual traffic deaths were routinely been in the four-digits for 86 years.
How can motorists continue to participate in this beneficial trend?
Keep their hands off cellphones while behind the wheel, and keep their eyes on the road.
Distracted driving, in fact, is one of the “Fatal Four” infractions that State Police continue to target for enforcement, along with speeding, driving under the influence and not wearing seat belts.
Disobeying the seat-belt law remains a problem. Among the 254 fatalities thus far in 2014, restraint was not used, or used improperly, in 72 instances.
Of course, seat belts cannot always prevent death. It’s worth noting that, so far this year, 89 people wearing seat belts in crashes still lost their lives.
The trend for much safer highways in 2014 has been established. Let’s keep it going. We urge people to continue to drive defensively and watch out for the other guy.