It’s hard to miss the flashing neon sign tracking motorists’ speed on Interstate 64.
As vehicles fly past, however, most of those orange numbers far exceed the 55 mph construction-zone speed limit.
With construction work on Interstate 64, Illinois 15, Interstate 255 and Interstate 70, troopers with the Illinois State Police have had their work cut out for them in the metro-east, trying to keep construction workers safe.
Trooper Calvin Dye Jr, ISP spokesman, said they are practically pleading with motorists to slow down and stop endangering the lives of the workers.
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The sheer amount of tickets being given in construction zones is “beyond mind-boggling,” Dye said. And many of the ticketed drivers might have no idea they even got the $375 citation, let alone that their speed is such a problem.
“If we’re not out there, motorists driving through have a complete disregard for the speed zone,” Dye said.
Troopers utilize a photo-enforcement van to catch speedsters. Over the course of a single day, dozens of citations are recorded through the van.
From 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Dye said it isn’t unusual for them to hand out at least 20 tickets for distracted driving or speeding in a single construction zone.
Some days are even worse — one day in August, the van clocked in 20 speeding motorists, all going at least 80 mph in the 55 mph zone, in the course of three hours.
All of those drivers will be mailed a $375 ticket within 14 business days, as well as a mandatory court date.
Road to tragedy
Sometimes, construction-zone speeding leads to a hefty ticket. In other cases, it leads to tragedy.
Josie Beard’s husband, Dennis Beard, was killed in 2012 when a car plowed through a construction zone along Interstate 64 just east of Illinois 159.
Three other men were injured in the crash, one of them permanently, Beard said.
“You think you have your life planned when you get married and have children,” Beard said. “To have that completely changed in one day is pretty traumatic. It changes you as a person. Your life as you know it is taken away from you.”
Beard, who is from Pocahontas, said people can change someone else’s life forever by speeding because they’re in a hurry or not paying attention because they want to check their phone.
“Your bad decisions could affect someone’s life indefinitely, whether you kill someone or injure them,” she said. “It could change someone’s life if you decide not to speed and to pay attention.”
Five years ago, Dye wrote the report on the crash that killed Dennis Beard. Dye said it still haunts him.
“I saw the pain that the family suffered from that,” Dye said. “They’re human beings with families and loved ones just like everyone else, and you’re taking a big risk of striking them when you speed and text while driving.”
Beard’s three children are 17, 14 and 10. She said even though it’s painful to remember her husband’s death, she’s trying to ensure her youngest daughter, who was four at the time of the crash, doesn’t lose her memories of her father.
“We always remember him and keep him alive in our everyday life, yet we’re trying to be happy at the same time,” Beard said. “Some days are worse than others.”
In 2015, there were 96,626 crashes in work zones in the U.S., 25,485 of which caused at least one injury, according to the Federal Highway Association. That same year, there were 642 work zone crashes where at least one person was killed.
The driving force: Safety
Federal grants from the Illinois Department of Transportation have allowed ISP to hire more officers to monitor construction zones, but Dye said that isn’t enough. It’s up to the drivers themselves to stop endangering highway workers.
“We’re doing our job; IDOT is doing their job. Honestly, the only ones not doing their part now are the drivers.” Dye said.
Dye said police presence in construction zones — parking inside the zone with their lights flashing — can make people pay more attention. As soon as they leave or take a break, however, motorists are right back at it.
The photo van can help with enforcement a little if drivers take it seriously, Dye said.
Master Sgt. Dave Filkins said the photo enforcement van uses a high-tech radar detector to clock a vehicle’s speed. If the motorist’s speed crosses a certain threshold, the van snaps four photos — two of the front of the car and two of the back. The photos are then uploaded and analyzed by ISP, and if the person indeed violated the speed threshold, they are a mailed a ticket.
Once the owner of the car receives the ticket, which will likely be for $375, they can either go to court and pay up, or they can write an affidavit declaring they weren’t the ones driving the car. The ticket is then sent to the person who was actually driving.
“More than anything, what constitutes a success for us is if nobody gets a ticket and everyone slows down,” Filkins said. “It’s all about safety.”
Filkins said people argue ISP is just trying to make money, but they actually don’t get any of the money made from citations. Instead, $250 of the fine goes to government agencies where the citation was issued. The rest covers court fees and goes toward IDOT for administering the photo-enforcement van. Filkins said they do this on purpose so there is no personal gain for ISP and the focus is entirely on safety.
“We don’t ever get close to paying for the photo-enforcement van, which is very expensive,” Filkins said. “Our payment back is the number of construction workers that are not injured and still alive.”
Filkins said they are now preparing for more road construction to begin on Illinois 15 near Illinois 157 for bridge work.
“There are two seasons in Illinois: winter and construction,” he said.
When construction ends in one area, it often begins in another. Throughout the year, there is an almost constant need for protection in construction zones. Even when workers leave in the cold months, half-finished roads can leave uneven pavement, drop-offs or other conditions that cause crashes if drivers are speeding or not paying attention.
Those atypical road conditions are part of the reason construction speed limits still apply even when workers aren’t visibly present, Filkins said. In addition, workers may be working at night and aren’t always seen by drivers until it’s too late.
“It’s kind of like when police arrest a drunk driver,” Filkins said. “We don’t know how many lives we saved from what we did, but we know something bad didn’t happen. That’s the ultimate goal.”