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Amid more risky driving, B-N police try to restart traffic enforcement units

Bloomington and Normal police departments say they’re better positioned to resume high-priority traffic enforcement work in 2023. Yet those departments have also historically taken very different approaches.
Chris Carlson
AP file
Bloomington and Normal police departments say they’re better positioned to resume high-priority traffic enforcement work in 2023. Yet those departments have also historically taken very different approaches.

Amid a nationwide increase in dangerous driving behaviors, Bloomington-Normal’s police departments say staff shortages have limited their ability to do traffic enforcement.

Officer retirements scuttled plans for Bloomington Police to restore its traffic unit in 2022, after more than a decade of dormancy. Normal Police had to temporarily disband its traffic unit in 2022 to free up enough officers for regular patrol duty, significantly reducing the number of speeding tickets issued in the town.

Other than it being less likely that you got a speeding ticket, the impact of those changes on actual road safety last year is difficult to pin down. Bloomington-Normal did see an 11% increase in traffic crashes in 2022 (about 3,500 collisions), according to data compiled by WGLT. But people were driving a lot less than normal for much of 2021 due to the pandemic, complicating any year-to-year comparisons.

The conventional wisdom, however, is that more enforcement does help.

“We do see in general that more enforcement – or, in particular, more noticeable or visible enforcement – leads to changes in behavior,” said Jessica Cicchino, vice president of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “We see it for speeding, for seat belts, and things like impaired driving.”

Different strategies

Both Twin City police departments say they’re better positioned to resume high-priority traffic enforcement work in 2023. Yet those departments have also historically taken very different approaches.

Normal issues a lot more speeding tickets than Bloomington does – about 20 times as many in 2020 and 2021, and six times as many in 2022. NPD’s ticket-writing is concentrated in some fairly clear hot spots: Main Street near Fairview Park, Main Street near Carle BroMenn, and College Avenue near Epiphany Catholic Church. NPD officers wrote more tickets in that one narrow hot spot on Main Street between Grant and Gregory streets (just northeast of University High School) than the entire Bloomington Police Department did citywide in 2022.

All those tickets are aimed at a major cause of crashes: speeding.

“That’s our primary guide when we’re looking at how we deploy resources. It’s really (about) preventing traffic accidents in our town. A lot of our enforcement efforts really coincide with that,” said Normal Police Chief Steve Petrilli.

Several of NPD’s ticket-writing hot spots are near dangerous intersections. NPD wrote 188 tickets in that one stretch of Main Street, where the speed limit changes from 40 mph to 30 mph. That spot is located between the town’s No. 1 (Main and College Avenue) and No. 4 (Main and Raab Road) most-dangerous intersections based on number of crashes each year.

NPD rarely gives tickets for speeding just a few miles per hour over the limit, according to a WGLT analysis. Tickets for drivers going 1-10 mph over the limit represent just 0.38% of all Normal speeding tickets since 2019. That figure is about 8.4% in Bloomington.

That said, NPD wrote far fewer speeding tickets in 2022 – around 1,032. That’s about half of what it did in 2021 and 2020.

That was because NPD had to temporarily divert officers from its specialty units, including Traffic, back to core patrol shifts responding to calls for service, Petrilli said.

“That’s an easy way to explain some of the decline in that. We just didn’t have the people to focus on some of those things,” said Petrilli, who’s been chief for about 10 months.

Police are also issuing fewer citations for distracted driving by an electronic device, such as a phone. There were 892 such violations in McLean County in 2022 – about one-third of what it was in 2018, according to the McLean County circuit clerk’s office.

“A lot of that has to do with some of our allocation of resources to get through some of the manpower shortages we’ve experienced the last few years,” Petrilli said.

Normal Police have since restored two officers to regular Traffic duty, Petrilli said. Normal is also aiming to increase its participation in the Illinois Department of Transportation’s Sustained Traffic Enforcement Program (STEP) grant program, becoming a full-year grantee for the first time starting in the fall.

A lighter touch in Bloomington

Bloomington Police has had a different approach, though that could be changing.

BPD disbanded its Traffic unit about 12 years ago, to free up resources for other police priorities. WGLT has reportedly previously on that shift in strategy and the subsequent reduction in speeding tickets. BPD officers issued 171 speeding tickets in 2022, or about three per week.

Interactive map: Locations where the most speeding tickets were issued (2022):

Jamal Simington, who became BPD’s chief about 16 months ago, has made it a priority to reduce the number of traffic crashes in the city, said BPD spokesperson Brandt Parsley.

BPD planned to re-establish a two-officer Traffic unit in 2022, but staff retirements led to a manpower crunch that made that impossible, Parsley said. BPD is currently about five officers short of what it’s budgeted for, Simington said.

“We’re hoping – we’re optimistic – that with hiring this year (2023) we’ll be able to get ahead of our retirements, and then we’ll have additional people where we can assign at least two officers whose sole duty will be traffic enforcement,” Parsley said.

That said, BPD is pulling over a lot more people than its speeding-ticket tallies suggest. BPD averages between 1,000 and 1,200 traffic stops per month. Officers use those encounters to try and change driver behavior without resorting to a ticket, Parsley said.

There could even be a trickle-down effect on passers-by.

“If I stop a car on Veterans Parkway, well, 3,000 people drive by while I’m on that traffic stop and see those lights, and in the back of their mind when they go out there, they go, ‘I better not speed here because I just saw a guy get stopped here yesterday.’ It’s just a behavior change,” Parsley said. “It’s not necessarily that we’re out there hammering people with tickets. Because if you look at the numbers, we’re not.”

Traffic enforcement is about much more than speeding tickets or even reducing the likelihood of accidents, said Petrilli from NPD. Officers regularly uncover more serious crimes or find people with outstanding warrants on those traffic stops, he said.

“There’s a lot of really good proactive policing efforts that start out as traffic enforcement,” he said.

Re-thinking street design

These shifting strategies locally come amid a big increase nationally in dangerous driver behaviors like speeding, said Cicchino, the researcher with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

But researchers don’t really know what’s causing that yet.

“We’re not seeing these big increases in fatalities in other countries that were still subjected to the same pandemic we were. It seems like one thing is just people’s psyches. The world is crazy, and people might be acting in crazy ways,” Cicchino said. “It could also be, at least early on in the pandemic, there might be different profiles of the people who are driving. There might be people who were riskier types of people who needed to drive more, and other people needed to drive less.”

Police enforcement of traffic laws is only one part of the solution, she said.

Street design is another tool. Narrower roads with fewer lanes are known to reduce speed, Cicchino said. On smaller streets, traffic calming devices and speed humps also tend to work, she said.

“We really want to be taking a holistic approach in looking at all of the things we can be doing to get at this problem,” Cicchino said.

Both Twin City police departments say they’re responsive to concerns from the public about speeding, such as a neighborhood that observes an uptick in dangerous driving on a particular street.

Bloomington residents are asked to contact BPD’s Public Affairs team (paffairs@cityblm.org) and report the problem. BPD’s Neighborhood Focus Team can then place one of seven department speeding signs – both as a deterrent and to collect data on how much speeding is actually happening. If there’s really a problem, BPD can place targeted speed patrols in the area to write tickets.

Normal residents can contact NPD’s front desk at (309) 454-9535, submit an online report, or text the department’s new Tip411 line. NPD can deploy its speed trailer to gather analytics to help determine whether a Special Traffic Enforcement Patrol (STEP) should be assigned, Petrilli said.

Most dangerous intersections in Bloomington-Normal (2021):

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.