For Atlantic Cities
By David Lepeska
Last week, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn approved Chicago's new plan to monitor speeding via camera in safety zones near schools and parks. In advocating for the bill, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, "My goal is only one thing: the safety of our kids."
Under the new system, drivers are fined $50 for going 6 to 10 mph over the speed limit and $100 for going 11 or more mph over. In most streets near schools, the daytime speed limit is 20 mph, meaning that a driver going 26 MPH is eligible for a fine. The plan would be in effect from early morning until 8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and until 9 p.m. on Fridays.
A Chicago Department of Transportation study that reportedly inspired the bill found the cameras would generate about $56 million from seven locations alone in its first year. This is just slightly less than the annual revenue from the city's entire red light camera network.
The new system, which requires an upgrade of cameras already installed on red lights, will have a lot more than seven cameras. Nearly 80 of the city's 189 red light camera intersections are in safety zones, and the city is now authorized to install fixed and mobile speed cameras in any of more than 700 safety zones, defined as 1/8th mile buffers around schools and parks.
The cameras will go live July 1 and will start issuing citations after a 30-day warning period. The revenue is to be spent not just on public safety but also on all variety of infrastructure, from roads to sewers. Chicago's City Council took up the bill this week, with Alderwoman Leslie Hairston comparing it to George Orwell's "big brother."
The criticisms are not unique to Chicago. Some D.C. residents have accused the creators of a similar speed camera system there of manipulation, citing the difficulty of going only 25 miles per hour when driving downhill. The system generated over $43 million for the city in 2010. Similar cameras have been come under attack in England, France, and Poland, as well as in El Paso, Texas.
Yet most analyses of the effectiveness of speed cameras have found that they reduce speeding, which usually means fewer collisions. A 2007 study of speed cameras in Illinois highway work zones concluded that the percentage of speeders fell from 93 to 45 percent in one area. And a study of seven camera sites in the Washington, D.C., system found the number of vehicles speeding by more than 10 mph declined by 82 percent compared with similar sites without cameras in Baltimore.
Perhaps Chicago drivers can find some solace in the simple, relatively straightforward system – 5 mph or less over posted speed limit, from early morning to late evening. Drivers coming up on this impossibly complex sign, near a school in suburban Detroit, for example, are essentially forced to come to a full stop if they want to know the current speed limit.
Ran February 2012: