Constable: Tollway death counts are more than numbers

The first time I saw one of those grim Illinois expressway signs was in 2012. I was merrily driving to the family farm in Indiana to visit my mom when I spotted a roadside sign dishing a little shock and awe to commuters and vacationers. There was something cold about the little electric bulbs in the sign above my expressway lane letting me know: "679 TRAFFIC DEATHS THIS YEAR."

It made me think.

"If that truck veers in front of our minivan with our family of five, that number could jump to 684 in the blink of an eye," I thought. "I'd better slow down, not tailgate, keep an eye on that truck and be ready for anything."

That's precisely what the sign was meant to do. While many states were seeing fewer traffic fatalities during the summer of 2012, Illinois was seeing a substantial increase in the number of people killed on Illinois roads in the first half of that year. After the Illinois Department of Transportation started posting a running total of the dead in July, the last half of 2012 saw fewer fatalities than the last half of sign-free 2011.

Still, the number of fatalities went up in 2012, from 918 to 957. Last year, with those same signs updating our death toll daily and urging us to drive more safely, our fatalities inched higher again, to 973.

I blame my eroding dismay at Illinois death totals on "The Hunger Games." Those movies, built around an event where young people and children battle to the death as part of a TV spectacle, keep the same running death tallies as our Illinois signs. But the movies announce each death via a giant screen on a dome ceiling that looks like the sky, displaying a name and photo and setting off fireworks to spread the news. Compared to that visual extravaganza, an emotionless number on an overhead sign doesn't carry as much clout as it once did for me.

The first time I saw an Illinois fatalities sign, it had the power to make me flash back to one of my worst days as a young police reporter. I was driving when a call came over the scanner in my car about a head-on crash near my location. I arrived on the accident scene before the ambulance and the police. Two men who witnessed the crash from another car were leaning into a twisted vehicle where a woman, pinned in place by the steering wheel, was unresponsive, bleeding and taking big heavy breaths. Helpless to change the outcome, we three watched her take her last breath, something the paramedics confirmed when they arrived a minute later.

I remember standing next to the police officer as he went through that woman's purse, looking for a name to place with the dead body that remained in the car while paramedics worked on an injured woman in the other vehicle. The officer showed me her license. On the adjoining flap in her wallet was a photo of her with her husband and two smiling little kids.

It didn't seem right to see those happy faces and know that I knew the awful change that was coming for their lives before they did. She was just one fatality, another number. But I knew there was a mom and wife behind that number.

So when I first saw those Illinois fatality totals, I multiplied the heartache I felt that day by the number on that sign.

Now, those signs seem more of a curiosity to me. I see Monday's 860 death toll and wonder: Did the ban on hand-held cellphones keep that number from growing higher? What does the 70-mph speed limit do to those numbers? If I drive to the family farm before Christmas, will that number have topped 900? Do we have a chance to finish the year below the modern-day low of 911 fatalities set in 2009? Or will a few bad weeks threaten the 973 mark of last year?

Those signs will never have the impact of the "The Hunger Games" death scenes. But the Illinois Department of Transportation is willing to use another piece of popular entertainment to spread the message that Illinois drivers need to slow down, wear seat belts, don't drink and drive, and not let anything distract us from the life-and-death task of driving.

Michael Rooker, the actor who played Merle Dixon on TV's "The Walking Dead," stars in the latest IDOT safety campaign, a series of videos at and Facebook posts titled "The Driving Dead." The postings don't have anything close to the power of watching a young mother of two die while pinned in her car, but perhaps they will prove more effective than the road signs. The catchphrase of "The Driving Dead" gives those behind the wheel a new way of thinking about driving.

"The point isn't getting from one place to the next," the spots preach. "It's surviving to see another day."

'Walking Dead' star part of traffic safety push

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