Trib Launches War on Speed Cams, CDOT Releases Data Showing They Work

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 10.28.12 AM
Still from a CDOT compilation of cam footage of high-speed driving, showing a driver doing 99 mph by the Vincennes Avenue bike lanes on the Southwest Side.

The Chicago Tribune’s David Kidwell and his colleagues have written extensively about the city’s red light camera program. Some of that reporting has been constructive, including revelations about the red light cam bribery scandal, unexplained spikes in ticketing, and cameras that were installed in low-crash locations during the Richard M. Daley administration.

Other aspects of the Tribune’s red light coverage have been problematic. For example, the paper emphasized that the cams have led to an increase in rear-end crashes with injuries, while downplaying the fact that they have decreased the number of right-angle injury crashes, which are much more likely to cause serious injuries and deaths.

Throughout it all, Kidwell has shown a strong bias against automated enforcement in general. He has largely ignored studies from cities around the country and the world that show red light and speed cams are effective in preventing serious injuries and fatalities.

Yesterday morning, Kidwell and fellow reporter Abraham Epton unleashed a new assault on the city’s speed camera program, the product of a six-month investigation. In three long articles, they claim that the city has issued $2.4 million in unfair speed camera tickets, and argue that many of the cams on busy main streets are justified by small or little-used parks.

If there really is a significant problem with speed cams writing tickets when warning signs are missing or obscured, or after parks are closed, or in school zones when children are not present, contrary to state law, it’s a good thing that the Tribune is drawing attention to this phenomenon. If so, the city should take steps to address the problem, as they did in the wake of Kidwell’s red light cam series.

Most of these issues can be traced to the city of Chicago’s questionable decision to propose state legislation that only allows the cameras to be installed within the eighth-mile “Child Safety Zones” around schools and parks. Instead, the city should be allowed to put cams anywhere there’s a speeding and crash problem.

However, it appears this new series is written from Kidwell’s usual perspective that it’s unfair to force motorists to pay more attention to driving safely. For instance, the coverage discusses how Tim Moyer was ticketed on five different occasions for speeding past a Northwest Side playground that was closed for construction — speed cams in park zones are only supposed to be turned on when the park is open. After the Tribune contacted the city about these tickets, they were thrown out.

The Trib uses this as an example of how the speed cam program is dysfunctional. However, the cams only issue tickets to drivers who are going 10 mph or more over the speed limit. The fact remains that Moyer was caught speeding heavily on five different occasions at the same location. Even if the cam couldn’t legally issue him tickets, he deserved them.

The Tribune’s new anti-speed cam series seems to be largely about helping drivers like Moyer who speed by 10 mph or more get off on technicalities. But the city’s default speed limit is set at 30 mph for a good reason – studies show that pedestrians struck at this speed usually survive. Why is the Tribune putting so much effort into defending the right of drivers to go at or above 40 mph, a speed at which pedestrians crashes are almost always fatal?

I haven’t fully digested all three of the articles yet, but I plan to publish a more thorough analysis in the near future. In the meantime, let’s talk about something that Kidwell and Epton largely ignored: the positive effect the speed cams are having on safety.

A CDOT analysis of IDOT data shows injury crashes in safety zones have gone down 18% since speed cams were installed, and fatal and severe crashes have gone down 22%. Data: CDOT, Chart: Steven Vance
A CDOT analysis of IDOT data shows injury crashes in safety zones have gone down 18% since speed cams were installed, and fatal and severe crashes have gone down 22%.

On Tuesday evening, in a preemptive strike against the Tribune coverage, the Chicago Department of Transportation released a preliminary analysis of Illinois Department of Transportation crash data, which suggests the city’s speed camera program is working. CDOT found that the number of crashes with injuries dropped by four percent citywide between 2012 (the year before the first speed cams were installed) and 2014.

However, the department found that injury crashes dropped 18 percent within the 21 safety zones where speed cams were installed in 2013 – a major improvement. Fatal and severe crashes within the safety zones went down a full 22 percent.

Moreover, while CDOT found the total number of crashes, including those with no injuries, went up by six percent citywide during this period, the total crash number within safety zones dropped by two percent. “This is just one year’s worth of data,” CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld acknowledged in a statement. “But we are already seeing a positive, downward trend in the number of crashes causing injuries in Child Safety Zones.”

It’s important to keep in mind that these numbers don’t take into account possible changes in the number of people driving, walking, and biking within the safety zones during 2012-14 analysis period. For example, if many drivers are avoiding these areas due to the presence of cams, the drop in crashes is somewhat less meaningful. On the other hand, if that means there are fewer cars passing through safety zones, that’s a good thing for school students, park users, and everyone else who lives or travels in these areas.

The CDOT press release also mentions they’ve found that, on average, speeding violations drop by 53 percent within 90 days after speed cams are activated. In addition, 67 percent of drivers who were ticketed in park zones didn’t rack up a second violation, and 81 percent of those who were ticketed in school zones avoided a second violation.

In short, the CDOT analysis seems to show that the speed cams are having a very positive effect on safety, not just for kids, but for everyone. That’s something you won’t read about in Kidwell and Epton’s latest crusade against automated enforcement.

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  • cjlane

    Yeah. boo-frickin-hoo. You were driving 40-plus in a 30. Get over it.

    *except* (and this wasn’t clear in my quick read) if the tickets are school zone tickets for going 30-plus in a 20, because the 20 only applies when kids are present.

    And I say this as someone who is in a car almost every day. Get over yourselves, you dopes.

  • R.A. Stewart

    Like cjlane, I’m in a car almost every day. I see at least two different things going on here.

    One is the sense of entitlement to speed that many drivers seem to feel. That, I have no sympathy with.

    The other is that apparently City Hall said one thing (the cameras will only ticket at certain times and under certain conditions) and has been doing another. No surprise there, but the administration shouldn’t be surprised at people getting mad about it, or at the Tribune jumping on the story.

    In an ideal world, the city would set (and post) reasonable speed limits citywide, place random (and maybe movable) speed cameras in many locations, announce that the posted speed limits will be automatically enforced, period, and follow through in a fair and transparent manner. That won’t happen in Chicago, of course, at least the last proviso. In the same ideal world, streets all over the city would be redesigned so drivers would be less tempted to speed, and transit would be improved to the point where more people in all neighborhoods would see it as a viable alternative for more trips. That won’t happen either, but one can dream.

  • whetstone

    I did a non-quick read and it wasn’t clear to me either–but yeah, my sense was that lots of the tickets in the Trib’s total count had to do with doing 30-plus in a school zone.

    And, honestly, it’s confusing. I assumed that it would be 20 during the school day, full stop. I had no idea that it’s when children are literally present in view of the camera.

    There are some ways in which it’s ludicrous. Take this line:

    “The data posted on the city’s website to justify the camera placement show more than 47,700 accidents from 2009 through 2012 with a connection to speed but that include a broad definition of when speed is a factor and count all types of crashes, involving not just pedestrians and involving people of all ages.”

    I don’t fault Kidwell for this–the administration said it was for protecting kids–but it’s also weird that we’re just shrugging off “people of all ages.”

  • The state law that was passed was written in such a way to prevent any kind of mobile or random camera placement, as it requires the city to post a notice for 30 days at the camera site before turning on the camera.

  • Anne A

    One of the big locations for park zone tickets has been 127th St. adjacent to the Major Taylor Trail (east of Halsted). This is a notorious speedway, where trying to cross 127th on the trail has almost always been difficult. It’s also been difficult for neighbors to safely pull out of or turn into adjacent streets in their cars because drivers on 127th wouldn’t slow down for *them*.

    Having the speed cam location hasn’t been a 100% solution there, but it’s helped a LOT.

  • cjlane

    ” I assumed that it would be 20 during the school day, full stop.”

    The School Zone speed limit signs (in Chicago) all state “On school days when children are present”. So that’s the only time that the 20 speed limit should (per the signs; not per ‘common sense’) apply–when it is a school day AND when children are present.

    Is that dumb? Sure. But that’s what is posted, and should be the expectation.

  • rohmen

    I grew up in Wisconsin, and that’s what all the signs say there as well. Personally, I’d say the “when children are present” part makes a lot of sense in every context outside of speed cameras. Children are generally out moving on the street for maybe two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. Would it make sense to have a reduced speed for 10 hours of the day when the majority of that time no kids are even around?

  • Lakeview Guy

    Great reporting again by the Tribune. Very thorough analysis. The city knew the only way they could get speed cameras installed was to create this type of legislation – it was all “for the children.”
    If it was truly about safety, why would they have to work so hard to get this legislation passed? The law is the law – and they are not authorized to ticket drivers at certain times of the day, they should not be allowed to do it. Even if people are speeding. Again, the law is the law. CDOT was again caught doing things illegally.

    The speed cameras are only about revenue. CDOT can publish what they want about improving safety, but I think they have proven time and time again that they can’t be trusted. I mean, they can’t even build lanes wide enough to acommodate buses for the Loop BRT!

  • Pat

    Be sure to share your support for 24-hour speed cameras anywhere in the city with your alderman and state rep.

  • JKM13

    Interesting how “the law is the law” crowd never applies the same logic to obeying speed limit laws.

  • Lakeview Guy

    Most speed limits are set artificially low. If I can speed and get away with (and I generally do), I will. I’m a safe driver and aware of my surroundings. Driving at safe speeds is not an issue. Trying to keep your foot on the break to avoid a ticket is an issue.

  • What’s reasonable? For me that means a city wide speed limit of 20MPH on residential streets, and 25MPH on the main streets, tops. For many it means going as fast as they can without getting caught, regardless of proven consequences to people or the environment we live in. The latter still has the majority vote—I don’t expect that to change until economics forces society to take a more sensible approach to urban transportation.

  • simple

    That’s quite a cavalier attitude towards law enforcement — essentially you’re saying that as long as someone thinks they’re behaving safely they should be able to do as they please, regardless of the law. You’ve also shifted the debate from one about proper use of speed cameras to one about the validity of city speed limits overall. Please cite some evidence about how 30mph on city streets and 20mph in school zones is “artificially low.” Are you saying that our streets would be just as safe at a higher speed limit? That’s just patently false. The faster cars go, the more dangerous they are — especially to other street users who are not in cars.

  • I’ve looked at some of the speed camera photos and it looks like many of the streets that they put the speed cameras on are still incredibly wide. Wide streets signal to drivers that it’s safe to drive fast there. The Trib has some bias here, but this is also borderline entrapment. If you design a street like a highway you can’t be surprised when people drive like they’re on one.

  • whetstone

    I wouldn’t say that speed limits are set “artificially low,” but a lot of times they are set below the speed at which the design of the road encourages people to drive. Which is why road calming/diets are so important.

  • dr

    What happened to the law is the law?

  • JKM13

    The law is the law for thee, not for me.

  • rohmen

    I personally don’t have a problem with 25 residential (hell, I’ve routinely done over 20 for decent stretches on my bike commuting in with a decent tail wind), and 30 to 35 on main arterial streets depending on lanes and location. My assumption (and maybe I’m wrong) is that the posted speeds were arrived at with at least some consideration of traffic flow vs. safety.

    You key in on the actual problem, tough, which is that the posted speed limits are simply ignored the majority of the time. If we routinely give people a 10 mph buffer before we even talk enforcement, 35 starts to feel dangerously fast in a heavy residential area.

  • No cars will idle at 50 MPH. Or even 20. It’s not just automatically rearing to go. Driving speeds fast enough to break any speed limits requires a motorist to not just keep their foot off the brake (the correct spelling) pedal, but actually push the accelerator as well.

  • cjlane

    “borderline entrapment”

    So, allowing parking within, say, 800 yards of a bar is borderline entrapment for DUI?

    Makes (borderline) as much sense.

  • cjlane

    I don’t “support” them, but would tolerate them, and adjust my driving practices to avoid tickets.

    And thus shift some of the cost of the City on to bozos who “can’t” adjust.

  • Pat

    Lakeview Guy’s main gripe seems to be that the city isn’t following the letter of the law (which it should), so perhaps he supports expanding where and when cameras can operate so the city can really make it about the safety of everyone.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    That’s the basic problem: Most people who drive at deadly speeds think of themselves as being good drivers.

  • Lakeview Guy

    I don’t support any type of automated enforcement. I support police making traffic stops. By doing this, police can also check for expired licenses, lack of insurance, impaired drivers, etc. To think that using cameras “frees up” police to do other things it ludicrous. Making traffic stops helps get unsafe drivers off the road. Cameras don’t do this. A driver could rack up 100s of tickets from a camera, but feel only financial pain.

  • I agree, that would be ideal.

    But right now we don’t have the manpower, and nobody’s interested in hiring enough cops to actually have traffic stops be a possibility — to make traffic stops you need officers out on the streets looking for them constantly, and officers who are out on the streets looking for traffic/driveability problems aren’t doing other things.

    This isn’t about ‘freeing up’ officers, it’s about trying to re-introduce ANY level of traffic enforcements (as opposed to the past 15yrs of almost none) after long neglect, and the inbuilding of assumption on the part of many drivers that most traffic laws are purely optional.

  • Most speed limits are set artificially low? The 30 mph limit most of Chicago’s streets have is artificially high, if anything- this Lake View Native thinks your assessment isn’t factoring in everyone from ages 8 to 80.

  • Pat

    For many people, monetary fines is the only thing that gets them to pay attention. You’re right though, there should be a cap on the number of tickets you receive before you lose your plates. Be sure to mention that to your rep when you talk to him about expanding the hours.

    Keep the good ideas coming!

  • forensicgarlic

    yes? you’re on a block with a ton of kids during the day, perhaps some caution would be good?

  • Off-Topic is a big way. Workaround: Not sure you really want to continue this discussion but if so, I think we can safely enough do it here.

    “cjlane

    “As for 9-11 truthers and holocaust deniers, again, if your
    goal is to change their thinking then you likely need to get them to feel that
    you all belong to the same tribe.”

    I do NOT want to make them feel anything other than ostracized,
    diminished and ridiculed. Which is what they should be.

    1:07 p.m., Thursday June 30 | Other comments by
    cjlane ”

    Yet there must be some people whose views you want or would like to influence or else why would you bother to post comments on blogs like this one? Are there not some people whose lives you would like to make better?