Chicago’s speed cameras start churning out $35 tickets March 1
Chicago’s mayor said speed cameras will enforce a lowered tolerance March 1 as a way to curb traffic fatalities. Critics see the $35 tickets as a money grab when residents are still reeling from the COVID-19 economic downturn.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s new speed camera policy took effect March 1, slapping motorists caught driving 6 to 10 mph over the posted speed limit with a $35 ticket in the mail.
While Lightfoot cited a surge in traffic deaths as the reason for lowering the ticket threshold, critics said it’s really about generating revenue.
Lightfoot said her decision in January to lower the threshold for speed camera tickets came in response to a 45% spike in Chicago traffic fatalities during 2020. After the lower-tolerance policy goes into effect March 1, the city’s 88 active speed cameras will begin ticketing motorists $35 for driving 6 to 10 mph over the speed limit and $100 for driving faster than that.
Lightfoot has defended the decision as an imperative to “keep communities safe.” Still, she’s drawn criticism for adding to the city’s history of balancing the budget through fines and fees that hit hard on low-income residents.
“We’re still in a pandemic. People are not working. Crime is up. Restaurants are closing. And we’re gonna continue to set people back by ticketing them more?” said Ward 9 Ald. Anthony Beale, former chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee.
“I don’t believe this is about public safety. I don’t think it’s about vehicle safety,” Beale said. “I think this is all about revenue.”
The safety argument has also been applied to speed cameras’ cousins, red-light cameras. But studies have failed to show the cameras truly make motorists safer but certainly make them poorer, taking $1 billion from drivers between 2008 and 2018. The cameras have also been central to the federal corruption probes that have hit many Chicagoland politicians.
As the city with the nation’s highest count of red-light cameras, Chicago has long used ticketing to bridge unbalanced budgets, generating over $550 million in revenue from cameras between 2008 and 2018. Despite the number of cameras statewide having remained relatively flat since 2010, each camera is generating more revenue, on average, than ever before. Revenue per camera in 2018 was more than $185,600, a more than $35,000 increase from 2014, when the number of red-light cameras in Illinois was at its peak.
While Chicagoans are being asked to pay more for the promise of public safety, studies suggest red-light enforcement cameras actually increase the overall number of collisions that occur on the road.
Independent studies from Case Western Reserve University in 2018 and The Chicago Tribune in 2014 suggest that while the number of T-bone collisions decrease with the use of red-light cameras by 15%, the number of non-angle collisions, such as rear-ends, increase by 22%. This was reflected in cases such as Oakbrook Terrace, where the number of crashes at an intersection increased after a camera was installed.
The study by the Chicago Tribune found the Illinois Department of Transportation determined over half of the intersections at which red-light cameras where placed were among the safest in the state prior to installation. A quarter of current cameras were granted permits in spots with no red-light-related crashes in at least three years.
The installation of red-light cameras has been tied to a bribery scheme involving the late state Sen. Martin Sandoval serving as legislative protector of red-light camera vendor SafeSpeed LLC. Sandoval pleaded guilty to taking $250,000 in bribes to ensure their use in Chicago suburbs. Besides Sandoval, former Cook County Commissioner and former McCook Mayor Jeffrey Tobolski was charged with extortion and had connections to one of SafeSpeed’s main investors. His chief of staff, Patrick Doherty, was charged with bribery, as was former deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation and former top Illinois Department of Transportation official Bill Helm, both of whom were SafeSpeed agents. Helm’s bribery charge involves a road project.
While Lightfoot’s stated aim is to lower fatalities by lowering the speed camera ticket threshold, traffic cameras’ checkered history shows they are about money – whether revenue or bribes.