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EDITORIAL: Troopers are being killed because we fail to keep roads safe

Trooper Brooke Jones-Story was fatally struck by a semi-trailer near Rockford, Illinois on March 28, 2019 | provided by Illinois State Police

Illinois must make our roads safer for state troopers — and the rest of us.

This past week shows why.

Trooper Gerald Ellis, 36, was on duty in his state police SUV early Saturday on Interstate 94 in Lake County when a vehicle traveling east in the westbound lanes struck him head on, killing him.

His death followed that of Trooper Brooke Jones-Story, who was struck and killed on Thursday by a semitrailer while doing a roadside inspection of another truck.

Their deaths brought to three the number of troopers killed this year. On Jan. 12, Trooper Christopher Lambert was killed after being hit by a car on I-294 while at the scene of a three-car crash in Glenview.

Ellis, Jones-Story and Lambert are among 16 troopers to have been hit by vehicles since Jan. 1.

That’s a huge spike. For all of 2018, just eight troopers were hit. Twelve were hit in 2017 and five in 2016.

Police have found “no common denominator” in this year’s crashes involving troopers. But, we think it’s safe to say, something seriously bad has changed on Illinois’ highways.

Back in 2002, a Winthrop Harbor truck driver became the first person charged under Illinois’ then-new Scott’s Law, which requires motorists to slow down and try to move over when they see a parked squad car, fire engine or ambulance with flashing lights — or any vehicle with flashing hazard lights. The truck driver had sideswiped a Northbrook fire truck stopped on the shoulder.

The unidentified driver who hit Jones-Story on Thursday also was cited for violating Scott’s Law, as was the man who struck Lambert in January.

We wish Scott’s Law had been enough to solve the problem of drivers threatening emergency responders. But clearly more needs to be done.

Illinois Acting State Police Director Brendan Kelly is all but begging motorists to obey Scott’s Law. And State Police have stepped up enforcement and are trying to raise awareness through social media. But that won’t prevent further accidents caused by distracted, careless or drowsy drivers.

“[The troopers] have their lights on, the visibility is good, and most accidents are happening when you can see clearly,” state Rep. Martin Moylan, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, told us Friday. “Generally, it is not in the fog or rain or snow. For some reason, the cars and vehicles are striking these police officers.”

Moylan is sponsoring a bill in the House that cleared the Senate unanimously on Thursday. It would require the Illinois Department of Transportation to investigate every roadside and crosswalk fatality on a state-controlled road to gather data on ways to improve safety. “We can’t have this rate of fatalities and injuries happening year after year,” said Moylan, D-Des Plaines. “We are trying to get the dialog started.”

State Sen. Laura Murphy, D-Des Plaines, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said other legislation is likely to follow, possibly including new measures to address distracted driving.

“We need troopers to pull over speeders and help disabled vehicles,” Murphy said. “It should not be at the cost of their lives.”

Murphy said she wants the state to collect its own data on the cause of accidents because federal information takes so long to compile, making it hard for the state to quickly address spiking highway deaths. “I am kind of incensed that it takes so long for us to get data,” she said.

Nationwide, researchers are finding that distracted driving, drowsy drivers and speeders are a significant cause of highway accidents. On its website, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports: “Several states are reporting an increase in drivers failing to move over and crashing into emergency responders.”

Zendrive, a company that creates traffic-tracking apps for mobile phones, calculates that 69 million drivers nationwide every day use their phones while behind the wheel. The company reports distracted driving is on the rise in every state except Vermont, where police have made cracking down a priority.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 25 adult drivers aged 18 years or older reports having fallen asleep while driving in the previous 30 days. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that up to 6,000 fatal crashes each year may be caused by drowsy drivers.

In February, the Transportation Research Board reported the most common causes of truck accidents were speeding and distracted driving — including talking or texting while driving, failure to yield the right of way, drowsy driving and careless driving.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker met last week with Kelly to discuss the spike in crashes and urged drivers to do a better job of obeying Scott’s Law, which also is called the Move Over Law.

Last week, Illinois highway signs flashed quotes from Kelly saying “Enough is Enough” and “Scott’s Law = Move Over, Slow Down.”

Enough IS enough. Illinois must make its roads safer for troopers, road construction crews and every motorist.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.