Legislation proposed for speed limit laws near schools

There is no mistaking Illinois for Kansas when it comes to driver behavior around children, state Rep. Elaine Nekritz says.

"I grew up in Kansas. Everybody slowed down for school zones,'' said Nekritz, a Democrat from Northbrook who has lived in Illinois for about 30 years. "I don't have that sense here.''

Nekritz is sponsoring legislation, which she expects will come up for a vote this week in the Illinois House, aimed at strengthening the 20 mph speed limit around schools to reflect the reality that vehicle-pedestrian crashes involving children don't occur only during school hours.

Illinois' current school-zone law requiring the reduced speed limit is in effect on school days and only during regular school hours, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.

But the law misses the most critical times of day — extending several hours after school — when the most children are being struck by vehicles near schools, according to a Tribune analysis of data that was published in a graphic accompanying a Jan. 28 article titled "School zones: Where kids and risk intersect.''

Nekritz read the story and as a result her legislation, House Bill 3229, would amend state law to make the 20 mph school zone speed limit apply whenever children are present — regardless of the date or the time of day.

"The traditional thinking is that we protect kids during school hours,'' Nekritz said. "But the data show that accidents happen outside of school hours.''

In Chicago from 2007 through 2011, the most school-age pedestrians struck by vehicles occurred in the hours starting at 3 p.m., when 460 crashes occurred; 4 p.m., 384 crashes; 5 p.m., 408 crashes; 6 p.m., 399 crashes; and 7 p.m., 285 crashes, according to the Tribune analysis of data from the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Chicago Police Department. The next highest, 277 crashes, occurred in the 2 p.m. hour. It was followed by 247 crashes recorded in the 8 a.m. hour.

The accident pattern holds statewide, according to a separate analysis using IDOT data conducted by the Active Transportation Alliance.

The Tribune analysis also found that half of the youths hit by cars in Chicago during the five-year period were crossing the street where safety should be the highest — within about a block of a school. That's where almost 1,700 youths ages 5 to 18 were struck by vehicles. Across Chicago, about 22 percent of the approximately 16,500 vehicle-pedestrian accidents between 2007 and 2011 involved injuries to youths.

"We need to slow down cars near schools, period,'' said Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, which has worked with Nekritz to obtain the support of police agencies and IDOT. "As a parent, I know that kids go to and from school well before and after school hours, which contributes to so many kids being hit near schools outside of school hours.''

As originally drafted, House Bill 3229 proposed extending the 20 mph school zone speed limit to 24 hours a day, seven days a week regardless of whether children are present. But some police officials and IDOT officials complained that it would be too big of a switch because drivers are accustomed to the provision "when children are present,'' said Max Muller, director of government relations and advocacy at the transportation alliance.

Retaining the language about children being present also provides additional consistency because it mirrors the 20 mph speed limit around the clock in park zones statewide, officials said.

But IDOT officials have also expressed concerns about the cost of replacing signs near schools statewide, said Muller, who has participated in negotiations on the proposed legislation with IDOT as recently as Friday in Springfield. Many school zone signs contain the phrases "when children are present'' and "on school days.''

Jae Miller, an IDOT spokeswoman, said the department has not taken an official position on the legislation and is still reviewing it.

The cost of signage is a small part of the overall expense of maintaining a roadway system, Muller said. He compared it to the cost of remodeling a public restroom versus the cost of replacing the "men" and "women'' signs on the doors.

The American Academy of Pediatrics supports the legislation.

The Illinois Sheriffs' Association also supports the bill in its current form, said Greg Sullivan, association executive director.

"I think the change will have a positive impact on safety,'' Sullivan said. "We want drivers to get into the habit of slowing down every time they approach a school.''

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.

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