Speed cameras issue more tickets in 2021 than Chicago has residents
Chicago drivers were issued more speed tickets in 2021 than there are city residents. Annual ticket revenues doubled, but fatal crashes still increased.
Chicago speed cameras issued 2.81 million citations in 2021, sending more tickets to drivers in one year than there are residents in the nation’s third-largest city.
One of those tickets went to Dr. Ramiro Gumucio – his first speeding fine in three decades.
“I’m a physician. I’ve worked with a lot of trauma patients who were in car accidents, so I’ve always been cautious when it comes to speeding,” said Gumucio, who lives in the Sauganash neighborhood. “I found out by email I got my first ticket from the city last August for going 36 mph.”
An Illinois Policy Institute investigation found city speed cameras in 2021 collected $89 million from motorists – more than doubling revenues generated from the cameras in previous years. Of that amount, almost two-thirds, or $55.9 million, came just from the $35 tickets Mayor Lori Lightfoot wanted issued starting March 1, 2021, for going 6 to 10 mph over the limit. Above that, the speed camera fines are $100.
The cameras in 2021 issued 2,817,554 tickets: one every 11 seconds, filling city coffers at the rate of $250,000 a day.
“I paid the $35 ticket, then discovered I had a second. This time I was caught driving 37 mph,” Gumucio said. “I hadn’t received a traffic fine in 30 years, and suddenly I had two tickets from Chicago speed cams.”
Lightfoot and city aldermen said the cameras and the lowered tolerance was about safety, not revenue. So what happened to safety during 2021?
Twenty more people died in crashes on Chicago’s streets in 2021 than in 2020, for a total of 167 deaths. COVID-19 lockdowns likely cut traffic deaths in 2020, but there were only 108 fatal crashes in 2019.
Are the cameras hurting safety? It’s difficult to say for sure from the Chicago data, but studies show safety improvements from increasing tickets are negligible. Others found cameras led to more dangerous driving.
A 2017 speed camera study in Great Britain found safety was highly localized around intersections with speed cameras. The problem was the number of collisions away from monitored zones increased as 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.
And University of Illinois-Chicago research also concluded there was “little relationship between the number of tickets issued and the safety impact of cameras.” Chicago traffic data did not show a significant reduction in 2021 vehicle crashes after the policy took effect.
“Has it made me a safer driver? No, I’ve always been a safe driver. I drive my 6-year-old son everywhere. I believe we all have a responsibility to be safe on the road,” Gumucio said. “I just don’t think that duty includes lining the pockets of the politicians in city hall for a bad policy.”
Chicago is the only Illinois city to use speed cameras. There are 160 of them, but 27 top cameras issued $1 million or more in fines last year, 10 of those topped $2 million each and two each wrote over $3 million in tickets.
The No. 1 camera issued $3.66 million in fines. It is at 536 E. Morgan Dr., near the DuSable Museum of African American History in the Washington Park neighborhood.
Which leads to the question of “who” is getting ticketed. More than one-third of the most lucrative cameras in 2021 were on the largely low-income, minority South Side of Chicago.
Plus, speed cameras hurt low-income Chicagoans even more than higher-income drivers, according to University of Illinois-Chicago research. 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 residents $244 if their payment is late.
While Lightfoot campaigned on a policy of reforming Chicago’s fines and fees programs, she waited nearly seven months after lowering the speed camera limits before trying to align her campaign rhetoric and her public policy.
Lightfoot’s efforts include 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.
Thinking of chalenging a speed camera ticket? Gumucio said those efforts are complicated by a lack of city transparency on camera maintenance and testing. There’s no guidance on how to submit evidence in the virtual hearings on tickets.
“It’s wrong for the city of Chicago to be sending out more tickets and just demand you pay them, especially after the pandemic,” Gumucio said. “Chicagoans should have some recourse to make our case with timely access to all the evidence. That is our right. But it isn’t the case now.”
Proponents of Lightfoot's speed camera policy have pushed back against reports illustrating the scope of its financial impacts on city residents, again focusing on the assertion that cameras improve traffic safety.
They point to studies stating speed cameras reduce vehicle collisions and injuries by as much as a 25% at conspicuous camera sites, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A separate study found the reduction in speeding rates spills over to neighboring unmonitored streets, leading to a decrease in most types of collisions near cameras.
The safety argument seems weak in light of the various studies and increase in accident deaths, especially when the cameras are generating so much money for a city with massive pension debt and spending it can’t seem to control. Speed cameras might be more accurately called cash cams.
“While the city is ticketing people going two miles over the limit, they do almost nothing about other traffic issues like drivers texting or on their phones or improving roads,” Gumucio said. “These are huge hazards, but the city doesn’t protect those people. Instead, they put up these cameras to generate revenue.”