Lightfoot admits speed cameras hurt low-income Chicagoans more

Lightfoot admits speed cameras hurt low-income Chicagoans more

A university study of Chicago automated traffic cameras commissioned by the city found minority and low-income residents are hurt more. Researchers recommended the city reform the regressive system of fines.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot released a new study Jan. 11 confirming automated speed and red-light cameras disproportionately impact minority and low-income communities in pursuit of improving vehicle safety.

The report from the University of Illinois-Chicago stated traffic cameras reduced fatal and serious vehicle collisions at the majority of monitored locations by 15%, but there was a cost. The researchers determined the cameras issued tickets to Black and Latino communities at higher rates than other racial groups.

It also found nearly half of tickets received by low-income residents incur late fees and additional penalties before they are paid – a $35 ticket can bump up to $85 and a $100 ticket to $244. That compares to higher fees on just 17% of tickets to upper-income drivers.

The study conducted by two professors in the UIC Department of Urban Planning and Policy recommended city leaders reform the current system that disproportionately hurt minority and low-income Chicagoans.

However, the research did not look at 2021 data, when there was an eight-fold spike in tickets thanks to Lightfoot imposing a 6 mph tolerance level for the city’s 160 speed cameras March 1, 2021. Speed cameras issued fines in the first 10 months of 2021 that collected $30 million more than the city’s total collections in each of the three previous years. The most lucrative cameras – nearly 20% of the total take – were on the largely impoverished South Side of Chicago, issuing $14.4 million in tickets.

Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to reduce the city’s “addiction” to fines and fees, then when in office lowered the 10 mph tolerance for speed cameras tickets to 6 mph. In a press release outlining the report’s findings, she said the city is working to ease fines and their burden on the poor.

“From Day 1 of my administration, reducing the harm caused by city fines and fees on Black, Brown, and low-income residents has been one of my highest priorities,” Lightfoot stated in the release. “This study will guide this ongoing work and highlights our commitment to transparency and making policy decisions guided by facts.”

Her release said nothing about repealing the speed camera change that created a $30 million city windfall.

Lightfoot’s efforts to change the discrepancy between her campaign rhetoric and her public policy on the cameras includes a 50% cut in traffic fines for Chicagoans making less than $38,640 a year. She also got the City Council to agree to extend the repayment period, offering limited debt forgiveness.

Ald. Jeanette Taylor’s ward on the South Side is home to the city’s most prolific camera: $3.1 million in 10 months of 2021. Her constituents have a median income of $25,000 and regularly complain about the cameras.

She doesn’t buy Lightfoot’s claim of cameras being about safety.

“I get a call every day about somebody getting shot in my ward. Never have I gotten a call to say somebody got ran over,” Taylor said.

“This is about them making money.”

The city of Chicago’s new report might prove automated traffic cameras improve traffic safety, but the public policy question remains: At what cost?

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