Tuesday night, the Chicago Tribune hosted a discussion of its red light camera coverage with members of its investigative reporting team. During the Q & A session, I noted that 48 pedestrians were killed and 398 were seriously injured in Chicago in 2012, the most recent year that we have accurate data for. “It doesn’t seem like you guys have done much coverage about what can be done to address Chicago’s crash epidemic,” I said. “Are there any plans for a multi-part series to address this issue?”
“The issue isn’t really whether or not there’s a pedestrian fatality problem in Chicago,” responded Jim Webb, political editor for Chicago, Cook County and Illinois. “The issue is what the city [should do] about the pedestrian fatality problem.” Webb asserted that while Mayor Emanuel has touted the safety benefits of red light and speed cameras, the paper has found that the cams aren’t as beneficial as advertised.
Afterwards, Webb sent me a couple of links to Tribune stories questioning the effectiveness of traffic cameras in reducing crashes. A November 2011 piece reported that fewer than half of Chicago’s 251 pedestrian fatalities between 2005 and 2009 occurred within “safety zones” — the areas near schools and parks where the speed cams can legally be installed. A March 2012 article reported that Emanuel had handed reporters a study that overstated the effectiveness of existing red light cameras in reducing deaths at Chicago intersections.
In both cases, City Hall should have conveyed the safety effect of cameras better, but the Trib also neglected to give readers an accurate picture of the existing research. The fact that automated traffic enforcement saves lives is settled science, and yet the Trib still frames it as a matter of ”camera advocates” debating “critics.” Reading the Trib’s reporting on the subject, you would think the enforcement cameras are a purely speculative venture with no proven track record.
To the contrary, a 2011 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that red light camera programs in 14 large cities reduced the rate of fatal red light running crashes by 24 percent. And a 2010 review of 28 studies of automated speed enforcement programs found they were uniformly successful in decreasing speeding and fatality rates.