Mary Mitchell Wrote a Powerful Defense of Red Light Cameras

Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell
Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell

The death of five-year-old Daniela Chavez, and injury of seven other people, including five children, last Sunday morning at 43rd and Western was a stark case of a tragedy caused by a driver’s decision to disobey a red light.

According to authorities, at about 10:25 a.m. the driver of a Ford Focus ran the light at the intersection, colliding with a Ford SUV. Daniela Chavez was a passenger in the Focus, along with three other girls, aged 13, 15, and 16. Chavez later died from her injuries and the other teens were list in good condition.

Four occupants of the SUV were also hospitalized, including a 32-year-old man listed in serious condition, as well as two boys, 7 and 11, and a 35-year-old man.

The 41-year-old woman who was driving the Focus declined medical attention and was cited for failing to obey the red and yield in the intersection, according to an ABC Chicago report. According to Police News Affairs, as of Tuesday no additional charges had been issued.

In response to this horrific case, Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell wrote a persuasive piece explaining that, while drivers like herself dislike automated traffic enforcement, it plays a key role in preventing these kinds of tragedies. “I detest those red-light and speed camera violations as much as anyone — well, maybe not as much as the group Citizens to Abolish Red Light Cameras,” she wrote. “Still, I’d hate for us to end up like Milwaukee.”

She said she visited Milwaukee frequently this summer as she visited her ailing mother, and witnessed truly terrifying driver behavior. In that city authorities say there is an epidemic of red light running, and injury crashes spiked more than 25 percent between 2012 and 2017.

Then Mitchell discussed the death of Daniela Chavez. If the female driver of the Focus was a relative, we should feel empathy for her loss, but the columnist rightly noted that the driver is squarely to blame for this senseless death. “I hesitate to call this an accident because if the woman saw that the red light and drove into the intersection anyway, that’s not an accident. That’s reckless driving and should be treated like a crime.”

Mitchell noted that many Chicagoans dislike red light cameras because they assume that the cams are there to generate revenue for the city, rather than promote safe driving. She also pointed out that the flat $100 fines are regressive – they’re a much bigger burden for low-income residents than affluent ones. (Other cities and countries have made traffic fines more equitable by providing the option of traffic school or community service, or charging sliding-scale fees.)

As such, Mitchell wrote, the cameras have become a political football. When Cook County commissioner Chuy Garcia challenged Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2015, he promised to shut down the red light program on his first day in office. Current candidates Willie Wilson and Troy LaRaviere also say they want to end the program.

“That’s not necessarily a good idea,” Mitchell opined. “A $100 ticket is a strong motivator.” She noted that from 2005 to 2016 all types of crashes were down at intersections with red light cams, with T-bone crashes down 66 percent, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation.

Mitchell pointed out that a surge in traffic ticketing by Milwaukee police officers in high-crime neighborhoods has helped lower crash rates in that city, but that approach would likely face opposition in Chicago due to our well-documented problems with police abuse. Another benefit of automated enforcement is that it eliminates the possibility of racial profiling by officers. (However, it’s important that communities of color that have historically been targeted with car-centric urban planning that encourages speeding don’t get a disproportionate number of cams.)

“We can’t let reckless driving become a trend,” Mitchell concludes. “Frankly, I don’t feel sorry for motorists that wrack up stacks of red-light violations. Instead of getting rid of cameras, a lot more of us need to practice what we learned in kindergarten.”

Mitchell got to the crux of the issue: While nobody likes to get punished for traffic violations, automatic enforcement is helping to prevent more heartbreaking incidents like the Daniela Chavez case.

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  • kastigar

    What is so hard about simply following the law?

  • ohsweetnothing

    How regressive are $100 traffic tickets when scaled against who actually owns cars? This sounds rhetorical but I actually wonder if this has been looked into or if there’s a way to determine/visualize that relationship. Doesn’t car ownership skew towards higher earning demographics?

  • Jeremy

    To increase economic equity, make traffic fines directly proportional to the blue book value & weight of the vehicle. Running a red light in a 2019 BMW SUV will cost more than in a 2010 Ford coupe.

  • ohsweetnothing

    Interesting idea!! Although…I suppose that’ll let frugal rich people off the hook, haha.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I personally think this is where the entire concept of regressive starts to jump the shark. This is not a mandatory user fee like a City sticker, or a tax being assessed on must-have products like food or medicine. This is a punishment designed to deter behavior that can and does result in people dying. Does the parent who loses a child (or v.v.) feel any more or less scarred because of the make and model of the vehicle or the bank account of the driver?

  • Carter O’Brien

    Right? There is a major disconnect here in that driving is not a right, it’s a privilege.

  • ohsweetnothing

    I actually tend to agree in this instance, but like keeping an open mind re: avoiding regressive policies so I’m always interested in thoughts here.

    I actually think the *most* fair punishment would be to lower the fine across the board, but apply a points system that violations would count against. Rack up enough points and your license gets yanked. Obviously that has it’s own obstacles to overcome, not least of which is political…I bet that’d have a bigger outcry than a $100 fine!

  • Carter O’Brien

    That was the old, pre-automated approach – your incentive to obey the law was not simply a ticket, it was that you’d lose the ability to drive after a few of them (3?) in any given time cycle, not to mention insurance companies held them against you, which I believe is not the case with the red light tickets. And those did indeed get people in the upper income spectrum to pay attention!

  • Courtney

    I’m on board with fines assessed by income level. Higher income folks pay a fine in alignment with their income and same with low-income folks. Low-income folks should also be given the opportunity to do community service.

  • Courtney

    Nah because you have some folks with higher incomes who choose to drive an older car and some folks with low income who blow their money on luxury vehicles.

  • Jeremy

    I prefer automated/camera enforcement to remove police bias. It wouldn’t be hard to link insurance and city registration databases to a Secretary of State (license plate) database to look for other violations automatically. I think adding the Illinois Department of Revenue is a step too far.

  • Courtney

    Agreed re: camera enforcement. Not sure how the Dept of Revenue would be involved. I would think folks could submit a paystub or some current (within 30-60 days) proof of income and the fine in assessed by that.

  • Johnny Goldwater

    They’re a scam and cause more accidents

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “From 2005 to 2016 [the total number] of crashes were down at intersections with red light cams, with T-bone crashes down 66 percent, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation.”

  • Alex

    The woman driving the Ford Focus was her mother. No mother would intentionally hurt her child.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Sure, no driver who’s not suicidal would intentionally hurt themself either, which is what’s likely to happen when you run a red. As I wrote, yes, we need to be empathetic to the driver’s loss. But as Mitchell wrote, “If the woman saw that the red light and drove into the intersection anyway, that’s not an accident. That’s reckless driving.”

  • Johnny Goldwater

    According to some of the people profiting off the fines. Cool stat.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    OK, in that case I guess we’d better take your word for it that the cameras are causing more crashes.

  • Johnny Goldwater

    No you could google search all the DOT studies proving the accidents went up

  • johnaustingreenfield

    So you’re willing to believe all the DOT studies, except for the one for the city that we’re actually talking about? Got it.

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