Wednesday, December 9, 2015

NIMBY in the ‘Wild, Wild West’ of Elwood, Ill.

Our family once owned a house that sat one well-launched football away from an Arkansas state highway.

As the area developed from cow pasture to cookie-cutter subdivision, our town did the usual dance and jig – signs posted restricting Jake brakes within city limits, followed by the attorney-prompted sign editing to “engine exhaust brakes banned.”

But we’d hear many an engine brake (nice try, lawyers) rumble through the night as trucks entered the area and were met by hundreds of passenger cars clogging the two-lane highway.

Neighbors complained to the city, but police were as busy with local accidents and evolving gang threats at the high school as they were with noise complaints.

But with each new subdivision came increased wrecks, slower traffic and more engine braking. The highway’s eventual expansion helped traffic – though I hear complaints still pour in.

Most professional truck drivers have likely seen some form of NIMBY – which stands for not in my backyard. One Illinois town with a history of high interactions between police and drivers is taking NIMBY to another level.

The Village of Elwood, Ill., located east of Interstate 55 and south of I-80, has been churning with thousands of trucks a day for years now as growth from both residential housing and an intermodal facility has choked city streets. A reported 20 fatalities have occurred in Will County, Ill., between January 2014 and June 2015, according to saferoadsillinois.com.

Elwood’s campaign is designed to divert truck traffic from the town. Available at Facebook under the “Village of Elwood, Ill.” page, what appears to be a news release is titled “Will County Residents Organize for Road Safety.”

According to The Chicago Tribune, Elwood lobbied the Interstate Commerce Commission to close a railroad crossing on Route 53 after a number of trucks hit railroad gates there.

Fired up by such a victory, multiple supporters of the movement have rallied around comparing the town to the ‘Wild West.’ Elwood’s Facebook account includes links to the anti-truck campaign.

Even the village’s top cop came out guns blazing:

“Will County has turned into the Wild West, with brazen truckers blatantly disregarding and breaking the laws,” Elwood Police Chief Fred Hayes said, according to the release. “Residents have understandably had enough. They want to reduce the truck traffic and reclaim their neighborhoods, safety and quality of life.”

The police chief’s quotes alternate between acknowledgement of larger traffic forces and anti-truck rhetoric. They appear balanced compared to other campaign statements:

“Families and neighbors are the ones paying the ultimate price when truckers run red lights and cut us off; speed; tailgate and slam on the brakes; crash through railroad crossing safety gates; ignore signs and drive in our neighborhoods; disregard weight limits and vehicle safety regulations; and disobey law enforcement,” says one resident who is reportedly related to a fatality victim of one wreck.

While the personal quotes in the group’s announcement are harshly one-sided, the message was crafted carefully enough to avoid blaming trucks for wreck statistics specifically.

“In 2014 alone, there were 909 truck-related accidents and 156 truck-related injuries in Will County, the highest total for any county in the state outside of Cook,” the release said.

Note that trucks aren’t cited as being responsible for causing the wreck; they’re blamed for at least being crashed into.

The careful nature of that language is wise.

Truck crash causation studies consistently show that heavy blame for truck-automobile wrecks does not lie with the trucker.

Drivers who have been through the village of Elwood, Ill., are more likely to know routes around the infamous burg. Besides its heavy truck traffic, the town charges a premium for permits and boasts a city hall that has been compared to the Taj Mahal by detractors.

In July 2011, Land Line pointed to the case of OOIDA Member Walter Newburry, who paid a $700 overweight permit fee for the privilege of driving 1.7 miles in Elwood.

“There’s only one road that it’s good for,” Newburry told me then. “I have to haul 10 boxes a week just to pay for my permit. And they tell you if you cause any damage to the road, you’re still responsible for the damage – so what good does the permit do?”

On Facebook, residents and trucking industry people have argued about responsibility for wrecks. Besides banning trucks, commenters have pitched everything from designating a route from I-55 to the inland ports as a state route to building new travel centers that discourage unsafe shortcuts.

One commenter appeared to keep the debate in perspective better than village officials or campaign leaders.

In a comment thread on Facebook, one trucker acknowledged the prevalence of passenger vehicles being at fault as cited in large truck crash causation studies. The booming growth of Will County, he argued, means some kind of action is needed.

“Uncontrolled growth in the ports of Elwood has created a unique challenge in regards to certain trucking companies and drivers not following the FMCSA rules, state laws and local ordinances,” he wrote on Facebook.

Ah, civility. Sounds like something Sheriff Matt Dillon would approve of.