UIC Study: Speed cams save lives, but drivers from POC communities get more tickets

A speed camera on North Avenue near Pulaski Road in Humboldt Park. Photo: John Greenfield
A speed camera on North Avenue near Pulaski Road in Humboldt Park. Photo: John Greenfield

In conjunction with the city of Chicago’s release of the UIC report today, ProPublica Illinois published its own research on the automated enforcement program, which also found that a disproportionate number of drivers from Black and Latino communities are ticketed for violations. Streetsblog Chicago will look at that piece later this week.

Last week Streetsblog looked at a recent Chicago Department of Transportation analysis that confirmed that the city’s speed cameras are doing their job by reducing the number of traffic injuries and deaths. The comparison of crash data from 2012-13 (before CDOT installed the cameras) and 2018-19 found that while serious injury and fatal crashes increased by 21 percent citywide during this six-year period, the increase was only 2 percent within the eighth-mile zones near the cameras. And while speed-related crashes spiked by 64 percent citywide during this period, they only went up by 18 percent in camera zones.

The comparison of crash numbers from 2012-2013 with data from 2018-2019. Chart: CDOT
Comparison of crash numbers from 2012-2013 with data from 2018-2019 from a recent CDOT analysis. Chart: CDOT

Today the city released another study that it commissioned from University of Illinois at Chicago researchers with similar findings that automated speed enforcement has reduced fatal crashes by 15 percent from 2015 to 2017. However, the UIC report also found that, while the speed and red light cameras locations aren’t concentrated in communities of color or low-income neighborhoods, a disproportionate number of camera tickets issued to drivers who broke traffic laws have come from cams in majority-Black and Latino communities and low-income neighborhoods.

In response to the findings, the city said it’s planning changes to the automatic enforcement program, and noted that low-income residents will soon get a 50-percent discount on traffic tickets.

The UIC report, titled The City of Chicago Automated Enforcement: Analyzing Equity and Efficacy of Red-Light and Speed Cameras, was written by Dr. Stacey Sutton and Nebiyou Tilahoun, professors in the university’s Department of Urban Planning and Policy.

A red light camera at Irving Park and Clark. Photo: John Greenfield
A red light camera at Irving Park and Clark. Photo: John Greenfield

2017 Northwestern University study of red light cameras

Another city-commissioned report on the red light camera program conducted by Northwestern University researchers released in March 2017 previously confirmed the effectiveness of red light cameras, finding that they resulted in an overall ten percent drop in injury crashes, with a 19 percent reduction in particularly dangerous “T-bone” and/or turning collisions. The NWU study also noted a “spillover effect,” with the cameras resulting in less red light running at intersections that don’t have the cams.

The Northwestern study also identified six intersections out of the 151 red light camera locations at the time where cams had issued a large number of tickets, but was no corresponding drop in crashes. In response, the city relocated cameras from these six intersections to locations where it was believed they could do more good.

2022 UIC findings on safety benefits of speed cameras

Chicago began installing red light cameras in 2003, and there are now 300 RLCs at 149 intersections, down from a high of 384 cameras at 190 intersections in 2013. The speed camera program launched in 2013 and now consists of 162 cams in 69 locations (each location can have up to three cams.) The state law that legalized speed cams only allows them to be installed within an eighth mile of parks and schools, and only permits them to issue tickets during school and park hours, rather than at any place or at any time of day where and when speed-related serious and fatal crashes have been a significant problem.

Last November a motorist was cited for failure to reduce speed after fatally striking Kaidon Bell, 14, and critically injuring a 12-year-old girl in North Lawndale.
Last November a motorist was cited for failure to reduce speed after fatally striking Kaidon Bell, 14, and critically injuring a 12-year-old girl in North Lawndale. The UIC study found that speed cameras are preventing these kinds of tragedies.

The UIC researchers studied traffic crash data at 101 Chicago speed camera zones between 2015 to 2017. They looked at the change in crash numbers between 2010-2012 (before installation) and 2015-17 and determined that the speed cams reduced the number of severe and deadly collisions in 2015-17 within the camera zones by 15 percent compared to the expected numbers, based on citywide crash numbers at the time. That is, thanks to the cameras, 36 fewer people suffered life-changing injuries or died from crashes during that period.

The researchers also found that the speed cameras reduced the total number of minor-to-severe injury and fatality crashes within the camera zones in 2015-17 by 12 percent compared to the expected numbers. So the cams prevented a total of 204 people from being injured or killed in collisions.

The study authors concluded that in 70 percent of the speed camera zones, automated enforcement is having a positive impact on safety. Of course, the downside of that number is that in almost a third of these locations, the cams were found to have no significant impact on preventing injuries and fatalities.

Response from the city to UIC findings on safety benefits

“Based on this finding, CDOT is conducting a thorough review of the speed enforcement zones where safety benefits have not been realized and will consider the street design and other safety treatments at these locations in an effort to reduce crash rates,” the city said in a statement.

One of the strategies CDOT has committed to is installing speed feedback signs in speed cameras zones. This will notify driver that they are speeding as they enter an automated enforcement area, providing additional encouragement to reduce their speed. This approach will further reduce crashes while preventing motorists from getting fined, so it’s a win-win.

The city also noted that last year CDOT completed traffic safety infrastructure projects at 400 locations across Chicago, including include pedestrian refuge islands, sidewalk extensions that shorten pedestrian crossing distance, and other traffic calming measures. The department plans to install 400 more of these treatments in 2022.

UIC findings of racial disparities in ticketing

While concentrating a disproportionate number of automated enforcement cameras in predominantly African-American or Latino areas would obviously be inequitable, the UIC researchers found that’s not the case in Chicago. “The number of cameras in close proximity to majority Black or majority Latino neighborhoods is not significantly greater than other neighborhoods,” they wrote.

However, the study authors did find that the cameras recorded proportionately more violations by the drivers of vehicles registered to households in African-American and Latino neighborhoods, compared to vehicles registered in other parts of the city. Therefore, a higher average number of tickets per household were mailed to residences in Black and Brown  communities, compared to other neighborhoods. Majority-Black Census tracts had the highest rates of tickets per household, followed by majority-Latino tracts, compared to majority-white or Asian-American tracts.

This analysis controlled for “camera exposure; type of camera to which drivers are exposed; and other built environment factors; accessibility to essential amenities such as groceries stores; various household and socio-demographic characteristics (e.g., jobs per household, proportion with children, race and median income); and the number of rideshare trips by driver residence.” The study authors noted that “Active rideshare drivers are more likely to be exposed to cameras.”

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that tickets per household increased according to the number of nearby cameras. Again, Black and Latino communities didn’t have more cameras than other communities.

However, the analysis also found that recorded violation levels are highest at red light cameras located within 350 feet of expressways, with these cameras making up only 13 percent of all RLCs citywide, but issuing 31 percent of all red light citations. Moreover, red light cameras near expressways accounted for 21 percent of RLCs in Black communities.

In addition, the study found there was a higher rate of recorded red-light running in RLC zones in areas with a low “road density” (number of vehicle trips), compared to areas with a higher road density. Recorded red light violations were also more common in high-crime areas.

Interestingly, the researchers found a lower rate of camera-recorded speeding violations in Latino communities compared to other neighborhoods. The study attributed that to the fact that 71 percent of speed cams in Latino areas are located near schools, much higher than the 41 percent figure citywide, and cameras in school zones operate for fewer hours per day than cams near parks.

A city of Chicago auto pound at 10301 S. Doty Avenue, near Lake Calumet. Image: Google Maps
A city of Chicago auto pound at 10301 S. Doty Avenue, near Lake Calumet. Image: Google Maps

UIC findings on economic impacts of ticketing

The study authors found that on average households in Black and Latino communities spend a higher percentage of aggregate household income on fines compared to other parts of town. “Economic burden follows a stark racial pattern, even after accounting for household income and number of tickets issued.”

According to the researchers, households in African-American, Latino and low-income communities were also more likely to pay additional fees – including late charges, booting fees, and impoundment charges – on top of the original camera fine. Low-income Chicagoans were almost three times as likely to accrue additional fees than upper income residents.

Moreover, the study found, residents of Black and low-income communities “have a much higher likelihood of accruing fees on a ticket and a much lower likelihood of paying a ticket, once they have accumulated fees or more than one ticket. ”

Recommendations from the UIC report

The researchers made the following recommendations (their language):

Regarding Camera Locations

  • Analyze red-light cameras proximate to freeways. Particularly examine the types of movements generating tickets in these locations and set fines to reflect severity/risk of harm from movement.
  • Examine processes that led to differences in the choice to install school or park safety zone speed cameras given the apparent differences in majority Latino vs other areas across Chicago.

Regarding Fines and Fees

  • Reduce base fines commensurate with risk of harm.
  • Introduce late fee caps, stop doubling of fines as penalty for late payment.
  • Implement a statute of limitations for non-payment.
  • Scale fines and fees by ability to pay.
  • Scale fines and fees based on number of infractions.
  • Introduce a graduated pricing structure for red-light violations, comparable to speed violations.

Regarding Safety Impacts

  • Reevaluate methodology for camera placement, make the process transparent.
  • Justify placement of cameras with local speed study.
  • Reassess camera locations that are not improving safety outcomes or where worsening crash records have been observed.
  • Decommission or relocate cameras when not found effective.

City response to the UIC equity findings

In the wake of the UIC report, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city will use the findings and recommendations to modify the program to help ensure that Chicagoans of color and low-income residents aren’t unfairly impacted by ticketing, including the introduction of income-based fines. The city says CDOT will also take other steps to reduce crashes in an equitable way based on findings from the study.

“From day one of my administration, reducing the harm caused by city fines and fees on Black, Brown, and low-income residents has been one of my highest priorities,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “This study will guide this ongoing work and highlights our commitment to transparency and making policy decisions guided by facts. Traffic violence is a major issue here in Chicago and across the country, and the speed camera program is helping to keep our most vulnerable residents safe. We thank UIC’s academic team for their detailed and diligent report on the city’s camera enforcement programs as we continue implementing their recommendations and working to create a more equitable fines and fees structure.”

High Crash Corridors and Areas identified in the Vision Zero Chicago Action Plan.
High Crash Corridors and Areas identified in the Vision Zero Chicago Action Plan.

The city noted that CDOT launched the South Side Vision Zero program, working with stakeholders to reduce serious and fatal crashes in neighborhoods heavily impacted by traffic violence, including Englewood, West Englewood, Grand Boulevard, and Washington Park. Seven out of eight High Crash Areas identified in the city’s Vision Zero Chicago Action Plan are on the South and West sides, and the study found that people in low-income communities are three times as likely to die in a traffic crash as the citywide rate.

Chicago’s 2022 budget lowered the speed camera ticketing threshold from 10 mph to 6 mph (a change not reflected in the 2015-17 data analyzed in UIC report), but also included additional reforms to the traffic fine and fee system to make it more equitable, an initiative dubbed the Clear Path Relief Pilot Program. Residents who make less than $38,640 will get a 50 percent discount on traffic fines. The program also gives low-income residents extra time to pay off ticket debt, forgiveness of debt, and the chance to have one city sticker or expired license plate ticket forgiven. The Clear Path initiative is slated to begin at the end of March.

Check out the executive summary of the UIC report here.

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