1M Chicago speed camera tickets fail to stop record traffic

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Chicago reported more traffic deaths in the first six months of 2022 than in any year since 2017, despite speed cameras issuing over 1 million tickets – as many tickets as Chicago has households. Two-thirds of the fines were for speeding 6-10 mph.

Chicago reported more fatal traffic accidents in the first six months of 2022 than in any first six months since 2017, despite speed cameras issuing over 1 million tickets – as many tickets as Chicago has households.

An Illinois Policy Institute investigation found 72 Chicagoans died in traffic collisions before July, 11 more than the previous record level reported for the first six months of 2021. March 2021 is when Mayor Lori Lightfoot lowered the ticketing threshold for city speed cameras to 6 mph over the limit in what she said was an effort to improve safety.

Chicago aldermen are expected to vote July 20 on repealing the lower speed camera limit over concerns it is disproportionately impacting low-income residents without delivering the promised safety benefits. Creating a new fee structure for speeding 6-10 mph by itself brought in $59 million last year, prompting criticism that Lightfoot’s policy is about money rather than safety.

Two of those tickets went to Dr. Ramiro Gumucio – his first speeding fines in three decades. He said the policy is punishing Chicagoans trying to make a fresh start after the pandemic.

“Lightfoot’s policy fails to recognize that the pandemic and unprecedented inflation has taken away the ability for many Chicagoans’ to earn a living,” said Gumucio, who lives in the Sauganash neighborhood. “Now this policy is punishing the same people that are trying to go out and just put food on their tables.”

Lightfoot’s allies delayed an anticipated repeal of the policy on June 22, allowing her time to pressure aldermen to keep the speed camera policy as is. The full council is now set to vote July 20 on a proposal to return the speed camera threshold to 1o mph.

The most recent data shows Chicago speed cameras fined motorists $36 million by June 25, 2022. That was nearly as much ticket revenue as the city collected in all 12 months of 2020, before the speed tolerance was lowered.

Of the $36 million in fines so far this year, two-thirds, or $23.7 million, came from the $35 tickets Lightfoot approved issuing for driving 6 to 10 mph over the limit. So far in 2022, Chicago speed cameras have issued a ticket every 14 seconds, generating over $207,000 a day in revenue for the city.

Lightfoot introduced her stricter speeding policy March 1, 2021, after the spike in traffic fatalities during 2020. The lower ticketing threshold has faced continual pushback from aldermen after reports found it doubled city ticket revenues while failing to improve traffic safety.

City data shows traffic deaths in the first six months of 2022 were the highest they had been for the same period back through 2017. The cameras were introduced in 2013.

CBS Chicago investigators found fatal collisions increased near speed cameras in the 12 months after the policy went into effect, despite ticketing rates skyrocketing eight-fold.

And a University of Illinois-Chicago study commissioned by the city before Lightfoot’s policy went into effect concluded there was “little relationship between the number of tickets issued and the safety impact of cameras.

“A ticket isn’t life or death for the city, but for parents, that’s taking bread out of the mouths of their children,” Gumucio said. He said as a physician, he’s all too familiar with the results of traffic crashes and would support devices that made streets safer.

Overall, researchers studying Chicago’s speed cameras from the period of 2015 to 2017 found mixed results on their ability to boost safety but clear indications tickets disproportionately harmed the city low-income and minority residents.

While the data showed cameras generally reduced the expected number of severe and fatal collisions around camera sites by 15%, the report also found 3 in 10 of these speed cameras did not improve safety.

In fact, the report showed 16 Chicago speed cameras were found to cause a “marked” increase in collisions and suggested the city decommission the devices.

Lightfoot has decommissioned or relocated just five speed cameras since the report was released in January. She has left at least 11 more danger-increasing cameras in operation while simultaneously preaching her 6-10 mph tickets to Chicagoans as a necessary sacrifice to reduce traffic deaths.

The 11 speed cameras making roads more dangerous will generate an estimated $2.5 million for the city in 2022.

Even now as Lightfoot touts her stricter standards as imperative to “keep communities safe,” the city has failed to produce any reports specifically studying her lower limit that show the lucrative policy is improving safety.

A 2017 speed camera study in Great Britain found safety was highly localized around intersections with speed cameras, but the number of collisions away from monitored zones increased. Drivers abruptly slowed down to avoid fines, then quickly sped up after passing the surveilled intersections.

An Arizona study found no effect on collisions from the cameras.

“Drivers are only forced to pay these tickets because there are deficits in Chicago’s pension plans that are not being addressed by City Hall, let alone lawmakers in the state,” Gumucio said. “That trickles down to affect the most socially and economically disadvantaged Chicagoans.”

UIC researchers also concluded the economic burden of camera tickets followed a stark racial pattern. Black and Latino households received a disproportionate number of tickets compared to the rest of the city.

A corroborating report from ProPublica found Black and Latino residents historically receive speed and red-light camera tickets at about twice the rate of white residents.

Chicago Department of Finance data showed 40% of the city’s highest revenue-generating speed cameras were on Chicago’s South Side, including two of the four cameras that have already issued over $1 million in fines during the first half of 2022.

“My biggest concern is for the marginalized Black and Brown Chicagoans who are being most affected by this policy,” Gumucio said. “That person driving to a job that pays minimum wage and might be late for work now has to take $35 from their paycheck for driving at a speed that was acceptable just two years ago.”

Chicago’s Clear Path Relief program introduced by Lightfoot reduces these speed cameras fines by half for low-income Chicagoans for one year after enrolling in the program – if paid on time. The mayor also delayed the accrual of late fees for enrolled drivers until Dec 31, 2023, when the temporary relief expires.

But few residents are using the program: just 0.7% of speed camera fines this year.

Speed cameras hurt low-income Chicagoans more than higher-income drivers. The UIC report found nearly half of tickets received by low-income residents incur late fees and penalties before they are paid. That compares to just 17% for upper-income drivers.

Late penalties drive up the cost of tickets, turning a $35 citation into an $85 fine. A $100 speeding violation can cost $244 if the payment is late.

Thinking of challenging a speed camera ticket? Gumucio said officers sent him to the city’s Department of Finance and then to the Department of Transportation for answers. He is still awaiting a response to his emails from early June.

“It’s ridiculous. My Freedom of Information requests have taken months and they still haven’t told me anything,” Gumucio said. “Officers keeps telling me to talk to the wrong departments. I last contacted them in June and still nothing yet. I can’t even get the camera information the city tells me I have a right to.”

While Lightfoot campaigned for mayor on the promise of reforming Chicago’s addiction to nickel-and-diming low-income and minority residents, she recently told the Chicago Sun-Times she is confident aldermen will keep her 6-10 mph policy intact rather than create an $80-million budget hole.

She said a vote against her policy means a pre-election property tax hike on Chicagoans to make up for lost revenues, telling reporters the revenue is “now front-and-center on peoples’ minds.”

What should be “front-and-center” on the minds of Chicago’s elected leaders is the city’s $46 billion in perpetually growing pension debt. Getting state lawmakers to back a constitutional amendment allowing the state, Chicago and the rest of Illinois’ nearly 9,000 government units to control the future growth of pensions would be far more effective in curbing budget deficits than nickel-and-diming residents.

Before the city council votes on repealing Lightfoot’s lower speed camera limit July 20, Chicagoans can use Illinois Policy’s Take Action tool to tell their alderman how they feel about the cash cams.

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