Driving Dystopia: Speed Camera Rule Change Creates Ticketing Explosion in Chicago

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At the start of the year, the city of Chicago announced that it would be changing rules pertaining to traffic enforcement as part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s updated 2021 budget package. But the one that was causing the most concern among motorists was a provision to have speed cameras issue tickets to anybody traveling 6 miles an hour over the posted limit, rather than the previous cutoff of 10 MPH. While just a singular aspect of the city’s plan to resolve a $1.2-billion deficit, it turned out to be one of the most controversial items and appears to have resulted in a tenfold increase in fines.

According to local affiliate CBS Chicago, data from a public records request indicated that during the 36-day period before and after the change took effect on March 1st, citywide ticketing went up from 35,784 citations in the weeks before to a massive 398,233 in the proceeding weeks. 

Since the city has stated that some tickets would simply be warnings to remind motorists that the laws had been updated, it’s difficult to get concrete numbers. But the tally for if they had all been legitimate fines is supposed to be a whopping $871,000 despite the cameras being dotted around several alleged “Children’s Safety Zones” near parks and schools that the locals sound rather skeptical of.

From CBS Chicago:

“I see this thing going off all the time,” said Ricky Duddleston who lives right across the street from the speed camera at 3200 S. Archer Ave. “Constantly flashing … I think it’s a scam, man.”

Duddleston doesn’t buy the city’s safety zone reason for putting the camera in this location. There is a small neighborhood park a couple of blocks away. But he said, “There’s no kids walking down this street. Never.”

Money is the motive if you ask Duddleston. “City’s crying broke. How much money you think they make off these things?”

That Archer camera flashed 257 times before March 1 and 11,016 times after. Fines totaled $25,335 for city coffers. Comparing those new ticket numbers to a pre-pandemic year, that camera caught 1,853 speeders during the same period in 2019.

The rest of the CBS piece basically chronicles the massive upshift in fines at several speed camera locations with the locals expressing their dismay and issuing allegations that the city is only seeking ways to accumulate capital — including 9th Ward Alderman Anthony Beale.

“That’s ridiculous,” he said in response to the sudden deluge of traffic fines. “In times when people can’t afford to pay, now we’re hitting them over the head with ticket after ticket after ticket. This is a revenue generator, period.”

The strife being created here by these automated guardians isn’t new. The Chicago Tribune has been tracking the city’s automated speed camera program since its introduction in 2013 and complained that “hundreds of thousands of tickets” had been issued under “questionable circumstances.” Complaints include cameras that were active outside their posted hours, issuing fines in places where there was no posted speed limit, and school cameras that were active on days class wasn’t in session.

Many cameras have already individually amassed millions of dollars in fines, with Lightfoot’s proposals undoubtedly supercharging those figures if they’re retained or expanded to encompass more areas.

But do they work?

Well, that depends on what you’re hoping to accomplish. If you’re just interested in bilking the public, then you’ll be pleased to learn they’re wildly effective. Though they do seem to result in diminishing returns, as motorists will quickly realize where these cameras are located and attempt to avoid them or simply pass beneath them as slowly as possible, they appear to be rather reliable revenue generators. However, the public certainly doesn’t seem to care for them and lingering questions remain regarding how much safety they actually promote.

I’m often reminded by the decades-long battle the United Kingdom had with speed cameras that I only became aware of whenever Top Gear would have politicians on during the mid-2000s. At the time, the show was routinely butting heads with the likes of Boris Johnson over the politics of restrictive driving laws and doing reports about how speed cameras didn’t seem to be saving any lives.

The UK’s long-term battle with the devices also resulted in a plethora of useful data, most of which supports the idea that they make cities a lot of money. Much of this was complicated by a conflict between existing British and European Union laws, resulting in years of legislation designed to close loopholes that might allow people to escape fines. In 2004, the Transport Research Laboratory published a report claiming cameras increased the risk of serious accidents by 55 percent in work zones and 31 percent on open motorways. It also stated that its research indicated that fatal and life-threatening incidents were 32 percent more likely wherever traffic cameras were located.

But government agencies had assessed that the devices were effective in tamping down speeds, which are often cited as a contributing factor in serious accidents, and remained well aware that they were making money. By 2007, motorists had begun launching petitions to ban speed cameras as the public perception of their efficacy soured. There was even a stint where citizens were routinely going around disabling or destroying the hardware in protest. Subsequent years showed an increased number of departments agreeing to shut down their systems in response. Despite the United Kingdom still having the fourth-largest number of traffic cams per square kilometer, it’s estimated that only about half of them are active.

While we cannot predict the future, one imagines that Chicago would be in for a similarly prolonged conflict if it decides to expand its own camera scheme. Mayor Lightfoot has discussed the possibility of extending the updated rules across the city or simply adding more Children’s Safety Zones. She also recently announced the creation of new “Equity Zones” designed to rebalance discrepancies between ethnicities after she declared racism a public health crisis earlier in the week. Critics have stated that it looks to be a clever ploy to free up $10 million for special projects and bemoaned her use of the term equity (rather than equality), while advocates have pointed out there there are indeed divergencies in the public health of Chicago. We’re just wondering whether or not she’ll want those zones to enact predatory speed camera settings or if they’ll be subject to the standard level of traffic restrictions.

Lightfoot hasn’t said yet. Though she did issue a response to the city’s updated camera laws:

“The change in the speeding threshold was implemented in response to an alarming increase in vehicle speeding and traffic fatalities. This change affects the City’s 68 Automated Speed Enforcement (ASE) Children’s Safety Zones, which are operational near schools when they are in session and children are present, and in parks during hours when they are open.

Forty-three more people died in traffic crashes in Chicago in 2020, a 45 percent increase over 2019. These deaths have occurred at a time when fewer cars were on the road due to the pandemic and City traffic data showed cars were driving 8-10 percent faster on average than at the same time in the previous year.

The goal is not to issue tickets, but to encourage safer driving behavior and discourage speeding that is correlated with more severe injuries and deaths in traffic crashes. In order to avoid a speeding violation, drivers simply have to observe the speed limit.

Even incremental reductions in speed greatly increase the likelihood of avoiding death or serious injury in the event of a crash. According to federal traffic safety data, chances of a pedestrian surviving being struck by a car are 90 percent if hit by a car traveling 20 MPH, 50 percent chance of surviving if hit by a car driving 30 MPH and only a 10 percent chance of surviving being struck by a car driving 40 MPH.”

We’ve covered alternative solutions to maximizing pedestrian safety in the past and, even though speeding does increase the risk of fatally injuring someone, there are plenty of other issues to consider. It’s usually just safer to keep those walking (or on bicycles) a healthy distance away from automobiles. Other solutions include improving pedestrian detection equipment on modern vehicles, limiting the number of distractions, discouraging jaywalking, and making sure you’re not hitting people with 2-ton SUVs with blunt faces. But let’s not kid ourselves, Mayor Lightfoot’s plan was always about the money and it seems like everyone has already figured that out.

Ed. note: As a Chicago resident who has long been outraged about the speed camera on Irving Park between Clark and Sheridan — one that is barely within the required distance of a park, a dog park that’s far off the street — I would like to add that I really, really hope the mayor’s office rethinks any expansion. The cameras are not, in my opinion, in any way used to increase safety. The unofficial city motto is “where’s mine?” and the cameras seem to be a complete money grab. I’ll save the rest of my thoughts for a potential future opinion/editorial post.

[Image: ChicagoPhotographer/Shutterstock]

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