Despite enforcement push, traffic stops on the decline in Illinois

Ryan Keith

It’s all over the news and roadways these days. Police throughout Illinois are cracking down on seat belt violations, construction zone speeding, drunk drivers and other no-nos behind the wheel.

But traffic stops statewide are down by tens of thousands over the last few years – in some cases, significantly – despite the high-profile enforcement efforts.

An analysis of state-compiled data found that traffic stops by all police departments in Illinois declined a little under 2 percent from 2004 to 2007, a perplexing trend in light of the focus on traffic safety.

So what’s behind the numbers? Are police cutting back on stops? Are drivers cutting back on traveling, or watching their behavior better?   

Police, motorist groups and safety experts say the mix of those factors make Illinois roads safer now than they’ve been in a long time.

“I believe people are getting the message,” said Beth Mosher, spokeswoman for AAA Chicago. “Illinois has done a tremendous job in making traffic safety a priority.”

It’s hard to argue with the results.

The Illinois Department of Transportation reports seat belt usage topped 90 percent for the second year as of June 2008, up nearly 15 percentage points from five years earlier.

Road deaths drop

Deaths on Illinois roads continue to plummet. In 2003, 1,454 people died on roads statewide. Last year, there were 1,248 deaths.

There were 484 fatalities halfway through 2008, compared to 598 at this point last year. The 2007 total was the lowest since 1,065 traffic deaths way back in 1924, and this year is on pace to do even better.

Police and traffic safety experts point to several reasons for the improvement.

People drive a little less because of higher gas prices and a slower economy. Law enforcement cracks down on seat belt and drunken driving violations, so drivers buckle up and slow down. Fewer accidents mean fewer roadway deaths.

Mike Stout, director of IDOT’s traffic safety division, says the department hands out about $20 million a year to local and state police agencies to help with such crackdowns. That money plus higher gas prices are a winning combination, he says.

“It’s one of the side benefits of this. We know that people are slowing down and we know that they’re traveling less,” Stout said.

But if enforcement is up, why are stops down? There’s no easy answer.

State lawmakers required the study of all stops beginning in 2004 to track data about who’s being pulled over, where and why. The study came in response to questions about law enforcement racial profiling of minority drivers.

Police statewide last year made about 2.45 million traffic stops, down from nearly 2.5 million made in 2004. That’s a drop of more than 44,000 stops, or about 1.8 percent.

Big drop in Chicago

But that overall count masks wide variances among different police departments.

The Illinois State Police, for example, stopped nearly 495,000 drivers in 2007 – a 28 percent increase from three years earlier. Other than ISP, all other police department stops have dropped a considerable 7.26 percent combined since 2004. 

The decline is fueled by the Chicago Police Department, which has seen stops drop by 40 percent over the last four years. A Chicago Police spokeswoman did not respond to questions about the department’s numbers.

Illinois State Police in past years have credited the increase to a more aggressive strategy for catching disobedient drivers, including using motorcycle patrols on interstates. But state police would not grant interview requests about their stops this year.

The agency was criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups a couple of weeks ago because data shows that minority drivers are much more likely than whites to be asked by police for permission to search their vehicles.

State police said in a statement that bias-based policing “is unacceptable and will not be practiced or tolerated by the ISP.”   

Big increase in Springfield

Traffic stop trends vary widely in larger Illinois cities, too.

Stops have dropped nearly 15 percent since 2004 in Rockford. In Peoria, stops are down about 5 percent. But in Springfield, traffic stops are up a whopping 55 percent.

And in all three cities, police pull over minorities at higher rates than estimates of their local minority driving populations would suggest those drivers should be stopped.

One police group says such results are a pitfall of the data.

Laimutis “Limey” Nargelenas, deputy director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, argues each department should study its results locally and determine if there are any trends worth investigating.

Stops are down in some areas because departments are in tough financial situations and unable to replace officers who leave, Nargelenas said

Any results that show minorities being pulled over disproportionately have to be compared to the area where those stops are happening, such as high-crime areas that might have large proportions of minority residents, he said.

“That’s a tough situation that law enforcement faces: How do we not over-police a neighborhood?” Nargelenas said. “We haven’t heard any community say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a real problem.’”

Slight decrease in driving

People are driving a little less, but not much.

Data provided by the secretary of state’s office shows the number of Illinois driver’s licenses has climbed steadily since 2004, and license suspension and revocation totals have been steady the last couple of years.

James Baxter, president of the National Motorists Association, said federal highway estimates show traffic volume nationwide is down about 4 percent compared to this time last year, and people are driving one to two miles per hour slower in areas that are monitored closely.

He agreed that police cutbacks are more likely the reason behind the decline in stops statewide than less or better-behaved driving.

“There are so many traffic laws, so many traffic control devices, and so many opportunities to violate these laws and devices, accidentally or on purpose, that the police barely scratch the surface,” Baxter said.

Stout’s traffic safety division hands off the data for analysis by the Center for Public Safety at Northwestern University. Analysts there say similar results in traffic stop totals, even with a slight decline, refute predictions that the study would cause police to back off of traffic enforcement.

“It is what it is,” Stout said. “We think that the law has been good. It’s serving its purpose in showing what is actually happening out there.”

Ryan Keith can be reached at (217) 788-1518

Traffic stops by the numbers

Here is a look at traffic stops from 2004 to 2007 for police departments in Illinois’ 10 largest cities and counties. These totals are stops made by each city’s police department and each county’s sheriff’s department. The data is provided by the Illinois Department of Transportation and available at

10 most populous Illinois cities – traffic stops

        2004        2005        2006        2007        ’04-07 (%)

Chicago    242,548        202,951        202,104        145,596        -96,952 (-40)

Aurora    19,162        26,466        27,146        24,576        5,414 (28.3)

Rockford    11,828        12,315        11,455        10,100        -1,728 (-14.6)

Joliet        20,824        21,341        21,259        22,959        2,135 (10.3)

Naperville    21,711        19,558        20,845        18,928        -2,783 (-12.8)

Springfield    14,760        24,558        23,172        22,857        8,097 (54.9)   

Peoria        16,576        13,377        15,783        15,752        -824 (-4.98)

Elgin         13,930        12,066        17,120        15,875        1,945 (13.96)

Waukegan    23,439        19,852        17,186        16,816        -6,623 (-28.3)

Cicero        4,696        1,331        3,698        5,873        1,177 (25.1)

10 most populous Illinois counties – traffic stops

            2004        2005        2006        2007      04-07 (%)

Cook County        33,988        31,791        23,806        22,733    -11,255 (33.1)

DuPage County        5,754        6,427        5,023        4,842    -912 (15.8)

Lake County        16,263        15,017        13,770        13,813    -2,450 (15.1)

Will County        14,373        32,396        18,419        20,228    5,855 (40.7)

Kane County        7,428        10,369        7,252        7,509    81 (1.09)

McHenry County    8,034        8,946        10,808        13,519       5,485 (68.3)

Winnebago County    10,999        10,856        9,707        8,848         -2,151 (19.6)

Madison County        3,889        2,936        2,807        926    -2,963 (76.1)

St. Clair County        6,528        4,140        3,027        3,614         -2,914 (44.6)

Sangamon County    3,720        3,264        2,839        4,869         1,149 (30.9)