When Will the Trib Get to the Bottom of Chicago’s Traffic Violence Problem?

Members of the Trib’s investigative reporting team at Tuesday’s discussion. Jim Webb is on the right. Photo: John Greenfield

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.

Photo: John Greenfield

The effect of speed and red light cameras is not some great mystery, nor is it an issue that partisans haggle over with no true answer, as the Tribune would have it. Automated enforcement works, and while it’s far from the only tool Chicago will need in order to drastically reduce traffic deaths, it will have to play a significant role here. The Trib’s failure to inform readers about how enforcement cameras save lives is making that harder.

As evidence that the paper does, in fact, care about pedestrian safety, Webb cited three articles by transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch. One was a January 2013 story looking at the dangers faced by kids walking near schools. Two other articles covered how the city has ramped up crosswalk striping and traffic calming installation, and crosswalk enforcement stings. (Webb didn’t mention it, but the Trib editorial page also endorsed speed cams in 2011.)

So, about the best you could say about the Trib’s actual reporting is that it doesn’t ignore the issue of traffic fatalities. But the paper also doesn’t bring the same tenacity — the same willingness to get in City Hall’s face and compel action — to street safety as it does to, say, red light tickets issued after the yellow light lasted imperceptibly less than three seconds.

While Webb acknowledged Chicago’s street safety problem at the forum, the material he sent to me doesn’t convey the severity of the issue. Chicago’s traffic fatality rate is far behind the safest American cities like New York and Boston, and even farther behind leading global peers. Only once did the Trib mention Chicago’s street safety record compared to another city — and that was to chide police superintendent Garry McCarthy for flubbing the stat. McCarthy said Chicago’s per capita pedestrian death rate was 68 percent worse than New York’s, when it was really the cities’ overall traffic death rates in the comparison.

Chew that over for a minute. Last year, there were 124 fatal crashes in Chicago — a number that understates traffic deaths because some crashes resulted in multiple fatalities. If our city’s streets were as safe as New York’s, dozens of people wouldn’t have lost their lives. Chicago’s crash rate is even worse compared to world leaders like Berlin, London, and Stockholm, where traffic fatality rates are as low as one-third of ours. Just think how many lives would be saved here if we achieve that kind of safety record.

  • Kevin M

    Nice journalism on (misguided) journalism, John!

  • CL

    I think they do cover traffic fatalities quite a bit — and they have recently done some investigative work on DUI plea deals that allow drunk drivers to get back on the road:


    If the city wants better coverage of their camera programs, they should work on making it less shady and corrupt. Newspapers investigate corruption, lies, and sketchy behavior — they view this as their public mission, and that will always come before advocating policies to tackle Chicago’s problems.

  • Thanks.

  • Aaron Berlin

    Obviously nobody likes getting a ticket, but is there a serious argument against red light cameras?

  • undercover epicurean

    To understand how the sausage is made at the Tribune, you have to realize that the readership is primarily made up of old, conservative suburbanites who love to feel superior to us dirty commie cityfolk. If it was truly a city paper, there would be some recognition that nearly a third of all households here do not even own a car, and many more than that use theirs only sparingly.

  • Big Buck Hunter

    Most non -sensationalist people use the word “violence” to refer to intentionally inflicted harm, not accidents.

  • Alex Oconnor

    What difference does it make John if you can jump in your car a drive to a spanking new strip mall and save 45 – 90 seconds.

    This is America where only communists and free-loaders walk; real Americans drive recklessly with impunity; body parts be damned.

    If your femur of coccyx assault my auto you deserve your maiming.

  • The word “violence” does not necessarily connote intent. You can have a violent storm, a violent explosion, or a violent car crash. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/violence

  • Dave

    NYC might have safer streets than Chicago (news to me, honestly) but I wouldn’t exactly describe it as something to aspire toward. NYC streets are still very very dangerous with way too many pedestrian deaths every year. I mean, how many rallies have there been in the past year in NYC demanding safer streets? The speed limit was just lowered due to demands from NYC residents for safer streets. Yes, NYC has made some great changes over recent years toward a “vision zero” goal but it has a LONG way to go.

    Approximately 4,000 New Yorkers are seriously injured and more than 250 are killed each year in traffic crashes. Being struck by a vehicle is the leading cause of injury-related death for children under 14, and the second leading cause for seniors. On average, vehicles seriously injure or kill a New Yorker every two hours.

    NYC should not be the goal. Now, Mackinac Island on the other hand…

  • jeff wegerson

    Jon Hilkevitch thinks that ridership on the CTA is down. I thought the totals were up while just the bus ridership was down. I heard him on BEZ. If I am correct then I have just lost some respect for his with-it-ness.

  • Ben

    John thinks accidents are violence.

    It doesn’t matter of cameras have any safety benefit. It’s all about money. And it’s the tribunes job to uncover the corruption behind them, and thanks to them, the people who were in charge of this scam will likely go to prison, where they belong. Do you, John, really think they cared about people’s safety?

    There is no credible evidence that camwras have any safety benefit.

    The programs need to end. Period. And trust me, there would be no change in accidents or fatalities.

  • Ben

    Yes, Aaron. Thy are nothing but a cash grab as proven by the city’s behavior. Can’t you connect the dots?

  • Ben

    Don’t think that was meant as a compliment, John

  • JacobEPeters

    He is reporting the fact that overall CTA ridership was down. Year to date ridership through July was down 3.2%, due largely to the 9.2% decrease in bus ridership. The CTA rail system has seen a 4.8% increase in ridership, in keeping with the 2012 (4.2%), 2011 (5.2%), and 2010 (4.0%) growth rates. Although 2013 rail ridership was down .5% because the Red Line was shut down for a good chunk of the year.

  • 1976boy

    I’ve heard that the numbers were skewed by the bumpy rollout of Ventra, which underreported boardings as the new cards were first being used. Apparently large numbers of cards did not work properly and the riders were able to board without being counted.

  • You’re also referring to them as “accidents” when in reality they’re crashes. Wetting your pants is an accident.

  • Which is why I struggle with the Sun-Times and Tribune, you’d think the Times would like to separate themselves from the Tribune. My interpretation is that they’re writing style regarding transportation mimics the Tribune.

  • Yeah, like refunding the adjusted-for-revenue red light camera tickets. The program as a whole is for safety. The adjustment to the time allowance was not.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Well the Tribune may make sausage, today’s story in the Tribune, makes CDOT sound like meatloaf:

    “Scheinfeld told aldermen Tuesday that the decision [to set the standard below 3 seconds] was based on the advice of “professional engineers” working for CDOT but did not identify who specifically in the Emanuel administration ordered Xerox to go with the lower standard.”

    This amongst many other jibberish certainly does not give the public any assurances.

  • Dan Korn

    I agree. The word “accident” is much more inappropriate than the word “violence” in this context.

  • Karl

    John likes hyperbole and likes to exaggerate the truth, as he does in the most of the posts he writes.

  • Damien

    Program has nothing to do with safety, and the Tribune has done a great job of proving that. If the city REALLY thought the program was about safety, they would be doing everything they could to show the PROOF that streets are safer. The TRUTH is, there isn’t any evidence of making the streets safer. Only general facts.
    And Rebekkah proved that she is a crook – basically she worked with Xerox to lower the threshold for issuing tickets in order to increase revenue.
    Thankfully, we have judges who uphold the LAW, not Rebekkah’s opinion.
    A class action lawsuit should be filed immediately, and Rebekkah needs to be fired immediately.

  • Ken

    It was her – who else would it be? CDOT is a pretty small department. She needs to take the fall for this, and we should call for her head.

  • Annie F. Adams

    Thanks John for attending this. Seems like a “Jumping the shark” moment for the Trib. This week I also skimmed comments after the “5th largest city has 5th largest cycling deaths” article. They were beyond offensive. The ghost bike pictured at the top of the article was a friend of mine’s best friend. If that article was about cancer they would have deleted the comments. In 2013 about 33,000 Americans were killed by car and 32,000 killed by gun. This year will be the first year more people will be killed by gun than car, due to increased regulations on cars. When I see folks demanding the ability to break the law in their car, I have to ask, do they know how many people died by car last year? So 1 philosophical question. Why doesn’t Streetsblog publish the number of people killed in cars, next to pedestrian and cycling deaths? I thought the Trib “cycling deaths article” could have benefitted from a stat like that.

  • Big Buck Hunter

    Both are accidents. Neither was intentional and both can be avoided in most situations

  • Big Buck Hunter

    That’s definition #3 on your list. There are more appropriate word choices IMO, such as “danger.”

  • Fibinaccignocchi

    Sweet, you should start your own blog, and pick your own words to use in it.

  • Folks, no bickering please. Future posts along these lines will be deleted and repeat offenders will be blacklisted. Thanks.


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

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 […]