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Chicago needs to rethink its speed camera system

Chicago speed cameras issue one ticket every 11 seconds.

In fact, Chicago issued 2.8 million speed camera tickets in 2021 – more tickets than there are residents in the city.

In March 2021, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s lower tolerance policy for speed cameras took effect. That policy set up a penalty system for drivers who are caught speeding – not by police, but by speed cameras. If motorists are caught driving 6-10 miles over the speed limit, they can expect a $35 ticket in the mail – $100 tickets are issued to drivers going 11 miles or more over the limit. Lightfoot said the move would “keep communities safe.”

But instead of providing safety improvements, the speed camera ticketing policy has become a huge cash machine for a city constantly on the financial edge. And after this change was implemented, traffic deaths actually went up.

Dr. Ramiro Gumucio was among the drivers who discovered a ticket in the mail under the new policy. It was his first traffic citation in three decades, and he was nailed for going just one mile over the ticketing threshold.

“I’m a physician. I’ve worked with a lot of trauma patients who are in car accidents, so I’ve always been cautious when it comes to speeding,” said Gumucio, who lives in the Sauganash neighborhood. “I paid the $35 ticket, then discovered I had a second. This time I was caught driving 37 miles per hour. I hadn’t received a traffic fine in 30 years and suddenly, I had two tickets from Chicago speed cams in a year.”

An Illinois Policy Institute investigation found that in 2021, the city dished out more speed camera tickets than it had in the past three years combined, and collected more than $89 million in fines.

To make matters worse, these tickets disproportionately harmed low-income Chicagoans.

The city has 160 speed cameras, 27 of which each generated more than $1 million from city drivers since last March. The most profitable was a camera at 536 E. Morgan Drive in the Washington Park community, which issued more than $3.6 million in fines.

The median income of residents in the area? Only $25,000.

“I get a call every day about somebody getting shot …,” said Ald. Jeanette Taylor, whose 20th ward is home to that prolific camera. “Never have I gotten a call to say somebody got ran over. This is about [the city] making money.”

In fact, more than one-third of the most lucrative cameras – responsible for 23% of total city revenue – are located in impoverished areas of the South Side.

Even a $35 ticket can be too much for some families to afford. According to University of Illinois-Chicago research, nearly half of tickets received by low-income residents incur late fees and other penalties before they are paid, turning a $35 ticket into an $85 fine, and a $100 ticket into a $244 one.

Before taking office, Lightfoot promised to reform Chicago’s fines and fees programs. Late last year, she finally proposed a significant cut in traffic fines for residents earning less than $38,640 each year. The City Council also agreed to extend the ticket repayment period, but damage had already been done.

Supporters of the mayor’s speed camera policy have pushed back against reports highlighting its financial impact on city drivers. They instead cite studies where speed cameras have been successful in reducing vehicle collisions and injuries at monitored sites.

However, 2021 Chicago data tells a different story. Collision rates remained above 2020 levels – before the lower tolerance policy took effect – and the number of fatal collisions actually increased by more than 13%.

It’s time for Chicagoans to start judging city policies by their real outcomes rather than the spin politicians sell them. The city should end its use of speed cameras and stop using them to manage perpetual budget shortfalls and hefty debt. Ultimately, this is another cog in a nickel-and-dime strategy of arduous city taxes and fees passed on to hardworking Chicagoans.

This article was originally posted on Chicago needs to rethink its speed camera system

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