Driving in Illinois
As with many other aspects of living in Illinois, driving in the Land of Lincoln can be divided into two distinct categories: what you do in Chicago, and what you do in the rest of the state. Nearly 75 percent of the total land area in Illinois is farmland, which leads to differences in driving behaviors in the rural portions of the state compared to what you'll find in Chicago and other cities.
But no matter where in Illinois you drive, getting behind the wheel offers certain challenges and hazards that every driver must be aware of. Understanding the unique issues facing Illinoisan drivers can help you to make the best possible driving decisions in order to stay safe on the road. Here's what you need to know before you venture out in the Prairie State:
Automobile Insurance in Illinois
Drivers in Illinois are legally required to carry, at minimum, liability insurance that will cover:
- $25,000 for injury/death to one person per accident
- $50,000 for injury/death to more than one person per accident
- $20,000 for damage to property per accident
- Uninsured motorist coverage that meets the above minimums
Most drivers will choose to purchase additional coverage, including collision coverage and comprehensive coverage.
Under Illinois law, "liability insurance policies automatically include uninsured motorist coverage at the legal minimum requirements for bodily injury or death." This means drivers are covered if they are involved in an accident with an uninsured motorist – and an estimated 13 percent of Illinois motorists are uninsured. Many drivers do purchase additional uninsured motorist coverage.
Mile After Magnificent Mile: Illinois Car Culture
You could say U.S. Route 66 – which has been immortalized in pop culture through everything from classic R&B music to Pixar films – is the heart of American car culture. This iconic road begins in Illinois, which is a point of pride for Illinoisans. Not only do multiple small towns throughout Illinois host festivals and other events in honor of "The Mother Road," but there are countless roadside attractions, restaurants, and other car-centric tourism available throughout the state to celebrate Illinois's position as the starting point of Route 66.
Although drivers in Illinois are justly proud of their place in American driving history, they are less likely to treat their own cars with such reverence. For many people in Illinois, a car is just a mode of transportation.
Automotive journalist Steven Lang attributes this more utilitarian view of driving to what he describes as "the triple crown of expensive automotive hardships: potholes, rust, and high taxes. If you value your car," Lang states, "don't take it outside – or let the taxman know you live in the Land of Lincoln."
Illinois transplant Anne Morrissy has noticed this same trend for practicality when it comes to car ownership, in both urban and rural areas of the state: "Unlike New York, it is still possible to conduct your day-to-day life with a car in Chicago – but it is not necessary to own a car there, because of the robust public transportation system. But the licensing, parking, and ancillary stuff that comes with car ownership makes it inconvenient enough that only relatively wealthy and confident drivers have cars. Having a vehicle is absolutely vital everywhere else in Illinois, however. There's no public transportation and acres of farmland. The people living in rural Illinois are quite literally dependent on their vehicles for survival."
Downtown Versus Dirt Roads
Although urban areas are more congested and that congestion is more likely to lead to an accident, those accidents tend to be more survivable than accidents in rural areas – partly because drivers are traveling at lower speeds and partly because emergency help is more readily available.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the rate of car crash deaths per 100 million miles traveled is 2.6 times lower in urban areas compared to rural areas across the country – and that general trend holds true for Illinois. In 2015, although nearly 76 percent of the vehicle miles traveled were in urban areas, only 58 percent of car crash deaths occurred there.
These statistics highlight the relatively higher dangers of rural roads compared to urban roads, but they also emphasize the unique hazards of urban driving in Illinois, where Chicago drivers are renowned for their aggression.
When Anne Morrissy moved to Chicago 8 years ago, she was "shocked at the speed, the quick lane-changing, and the complete embrace of the zipper merge – but now it's hard to drive anywhere else."
Scott Kenemore, who moved to Chicago from Iowa in 2004, had a similar experience: "It seemed as though people here drove fast and aggressively, but it's amazing how quickly you adapt to that style yourself. Now when I go back to Iowa, it seems like everyone is a slowpoke who insists the other person go first at a 4-way stop."
Miles Driven in Illinois
The U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration compiles data on the amount of miles driven by Americans each year. In 2014, which is the most recent year for which we have data, the average American driver was behind the wheel for a total of 13,476 miles – but the average Illinoisan driver only logged 12,921 miles that year.
The mileage difference between the national average and the Illinois average is relatively small, but it does translate to a modest savings on regular maintenance, like air filter replacements and tire rotations, and irregular maintenance, like replacing timing belts and coolant fluids. According to the financial blog My Money Design, maintenance costs approximately $0.26/mile, which means that the driver in Illinois who puts 12,921 miles on their car each year can expect to pay approximately $3,360 in annual maintenance costs.
However, harsh winter weather, along with the fact that the state ranks 43rd in per-capita infrastructure spending, means that the roadways themselves can necessitate drivers to spend more on vehicle maintenance. As of 2015, The Washington Post reports that 27 percent of Illinois roads are rated as poor, meaning "they have so many major ruts, cracks and potholes that they can't simply be resurfaced – they need to be completely rebuilt." Those potholes come at a price: Illinois drivers can expect to pay $540 per year in extra vehicle upkeep costs.
Gas Prices in Illinois
The average costs for a fill-up in Illinois tends to be higher than the national average. As of April 12, 2017, the average price for a gallon of regular unleaded in Illinois was $2.503 whereas the national average price was $2.398.
But these figures do not tell the whole story of gas prices across the state. Not surprisingly, Illinois's average is skewed upward by Chicago's prices. Within the city, a gallon of regular unleaded costs $2.844, and it is only slighter cheaper at $2.634 in the Chicago Metro area. But in other areas of the state, the price of gas is near to or below the national average. In particular, drivers in Springfield will only pay $2.283 per gallon.
The difference in prices across the state helps explain some of the differences in driving behaviors seen in Chicago versus elsewhere in the state. Cheaper gas prices encourage more people to fill up and take trips. You are more likely to see cars on the road for recreational trips outside of Chicago because of the lower price of gas – but the more drivers, the greater the chance for an accident, especially on rural roads.
The Unemployment Rate
As of March 2017, the national unemployment rate was 4.5 percent. Illinois, however, had an unemployment rate of 5.4 percent during that time, placing it as 35th in unemployment in the nation.
Employment levels can make an enormous difference in the driving habits of a state's residents. That's because as the employment rate increases, so do the number of commuters, since they have to get to work. According to the 2014 Census Bureau American Community Survey, the average Illinoisan commutes for 28 minutes each way. But high unemployment means there are fewer cars on the road during rush hour.
Of course, drivers are not just on the road to get to and from work, and employment can affect other types of driving habits. Illinoisans who are out of work may not have extra funds available to go out to dinner, shopping, or other entertainment.
The driving-unemployment connection is another phenomenon that can differ depending on where in Illinois you live. According to Tracie Guy-Decker, who lived in Chicago from 2000-2007, "My car was a total luxury. I could get anywhere I needed to go on public transportation, and the car was for big box stores and road trips." If Guy-Decker needed to conserve money while she was between jobs, she would simply forgo driving. That kind of choice is not necessarily available to drivers in other parts of the state who need their cars to take care of basic life maintenance – meaning high unemployment can potentially reduce the number of cars on the road in Chicago more than it would elsewhere in the state.
The most dangerous road hazard for previous generations may have been drinking and driving, but in the new millennium, distracted driving is the much more prevalent danger. Distracted driving refers to any situation in which a driver focuses on something other than the road. It is most commonly associated with drivers using their cell phones (for calling, texting, emailing, etc.) while behind the wheel.
According to Distraction.gov, in 2015, 3,477 people were killed and another 391,000 were injured nationally in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers – although the numbers may be even higher. Since drivers are often unwilling to admit to cell phone use, and there is no equivalent to a blood-alcohol test to determine if distraction was a factor in a car accident, the number of distraction-related crashes may be under reported.
Illinois is one of many states that is working to reduce distracted driving through various types of legislation. In particular, Illinois law prohibits all hand-held use of cell phones for talking or texting while driving, although hands-free devices are allowed for drivers aged 19 and older. A first offense will result in a $75 fine along with a ticket, and each subsequent offense adds $25 to cost of your fine, with a maximum fine of $150. Distracted drivers who cause a crash can potentially face criminal penalties, including incarceration.
For teens, learning to drive is an important step in becoming an adult, but it can be hazardous for both the teen driver and anyone who shares the road with them. That's because teenagers are among the most dangerous drivers on the road, thanks to both their inexperience behind the wheel, and their greater tendency to engage in distracted driving. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, “distraction was a factor in nearly 6 out of 10 moderate-to-severe teen crashes."
This is why Illinois has adopted a graduated licensing system for teenage drivers. Under this system, there are three levels of driver licenses available to teens:
- Instruction Permit – Teens who are at least 15 years old may apply for this permit, provided they are enrolled in an approved driver education program and have passed written and vision tests. With the instruction permit, teens may not drive between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. Friday and Saturday. They must also practice driving for a minimum of 50 hours, at least 10 of those hours at night, under the supervision of a licensed driver over the age of 21.
- Initial Licensing – Teens who are 16 or older and who have completed the required 50 hours of practice driving may apply for the initial license. Drivers with this license have the same driving curfew as drivers with a permit. For the first 12 months of licensing, or until the driver turns 18, whichever comes first, teen drivers may not have more than one passenger under the age of 20.
- Full Licensing – Once teens reach age 18, they are eligible for a full license with no additional restrictions – except for the restriction on the hands-free devices for anyone under the age of 19.
The State of Driving in Illinois
Whenever you drive, whether it's for practical purposes like commuting or running errands, or simply for the joy of the road, it pays to remember what specific challenges and hazards you might face in Illinois. Understanding what you might encounter on the road in the Prairie State can help you make the best and safest decisions behind the wheel.