In a sign that the campaign against distracted driving has been driven to distraction, the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority is refusing to provide signage for restaurants and gas stations along Illinois toll roads because it fears the signs will cause a dangerous distraction for drivers and because the signs may violate federal safety regulations.
Despite support from local businesses, chambers of commerce and county boards in the Southland, the Highway Authority has resisted putting in signs from many years. Some business leaders surmise that the Highway Authority's reluctance to place signage along the Tollway has more to do with a sweetheart deal it signed many years ago with a California development firm to develop and maintain the Tollway's oases than a fear of distracted drivers careening past exit ramps.
In 2002, the Highway Authority signed a deal with Wilton Partners, of California, to develop the Tollway oases, in exchange for shared profits from oasis rental properties. At the time, Wilton Partners was backed by friends of the former governor Rod Blagojevich: Chris Kelly and Tony Rezko. Perhaps in an effort to protect its rental property profits, the Highway Authority has resisted signage for local businesses near oases since then.
Does the Sign Ban Make Sense?
Whatever the reasons behind the sign ban along the Tollway, it may actually be more dangerous to ban signs. Because of perks, loyalty cards and personal preference, many drivers are looking for specific restaurants, gas stations and hotels as they drive along the Tollway. Without signs, drivers may resort to gawking near exits or they may turn to their GPS unit or smartphone to find the business they want.
In late July, Governor Quinn signed legislation that creates a new office, the Office of the Illinois Tollway Inspector General. The new inspector will have the authority to investigate wrongdoing and mismanagement in the Illinois Tollway system. This comes as voters and lawmakers requested more transparency and accountability within that department. The inspector will also have oversight over business transactions involving the Tollway and the agency's officers, employees and vendors.
The new legislation takes effect on January 1, 2011. At that point, the new inspector can address the concerns of business leaders and drivers along the Illinois Tollway.