Credit: Rachal Duggan

There’s a mountain of evidence from around the world that automated traffic enforcement saves lives. For example, a 2012 study in the Journal of Accident Analysis and Prevention credited the widespread use of speed cameras in France with saving more than 15,000 lives over a seven-year period.

However, Chicago’s traffic cameras have been highly contentious. Not only do drivers hate getting tickets, but starting in 2012 a Chicago Tribune series uncovered a number of issues with the red light camera program, mostly under the last Mayor Daley. These ranged from dubious cam locations to a bribery scheme by the vendor, Redflex.

Current mayor Rahm Emanuel’s speed camera program, which launched in October 2013 and has installed 150 cameras in 63 “Children’s Safety Zones” around schools and parks, has been less controversial so far. But last week, Trib reporters David Kidwell, who spearheaded the red light coverage, and Abraham Epton went nuclear on the speed cameras.

In four long, mind-numbingly detailed articles, covering the better part of eight pages of newsprint, the reporters described how the cameras have issued roughly $2.4 million in questionable tickets. That represents about 2.6 percent of the roughly $81 million in tickets produced over the last two years.

They quoted a dozen or so drivers who complained that the tickets they received were unfair because they were issued while parks were closed, children weren’t present in school zones, or warning signs were missing, contrary to state law and city ordinance.

“It’s a sneaky thing to do,” north sider Alissa Friedman told the paper.

Kidwell and Epton also attacked the locations of the cameras, which state law dictates can only be installed within eighth-mile zones around schools and parks.

“While it was pitched by the mayor as a way to protect youngsters walking near parks and schools, the most prolific cameras in the two-year-old ‘Children’s Safety Zone’ initiative can be found along major roadways, where crash data shows child pedestrians are least likely to be struck by speeders,” they wrote. They also noted that some of the cams on busy streets are justified by their proximity to small parks with limited foot traffic.

But, as with the paper’s red light coverage, the speed camera articles show a strong bias against automated enforcement in general. Once again, the paper largely ignored the safety benefits of the cams, even though they’re widely documented.

The reporters also chose not to discuss the reasons speed enforcement is crucial, not just for the safety of children, but for everybody. The city’s default speed limit is 30 mph, and for good reason: studies show that pedestrians who are struck at this speed usually survive, while those struck at 40 almost always die.

A speed camera on North Avenue near Keystone Park. Some residents have complained that low foot traffic coming in and out of the park makes the camera unnecessary.Credit: John Greenfield

None of the drivers who cried foul in the Trib‘s story claimed they weren’t speeding. And since Chicago only issues speed cam tickets to motorists going ten mph or more over the limit, we know all of the people who were ticketed in 30 mph zones were driving dangerously fast. Faulty cams or not, those drivers deserved fines.

Still, the reporters have a point about the stated purpose of the program. Back in 2012, when Emanuel pushed for the state legislation that legalized the cameras, he said, “My goal is only one thing: the safety of our kids.”

Apparently, the mayor thought it would be easier get the state law passed if he used a “think of the children” argument, even though speed cameras improve safety for everyone and the city should be allowed to install them wherever speeding is a problem. But Emanuel’s rhetorical strategy has backfired to some extent.

Kidwell and Epton noted that, according to Chicago Police Department crash data taken from 2004 to 2014, the majority of injury-causing crashes involving kids on foot or bikes took place on side streets, not on the arterials where the speed cameras are generally located. They also noted that cameras near small parks with light foot traffic raise suspicions that the cams’ purpose is to generate revenue for the city, rather than protect children.

Keystone ParkCredit: John Greenfield

That issue reared its head earlier this month at Keystone Park, a playground in the Hermosa neighborhood, when three cams were activated on nearby Pulaski and North avenues, out of eyeshot from the green space. “To justify the installation of those speed cameras on the basis of safety of kids, it just doesn’t fly,” 26th Ward alderman Roberto Maldonado told DNAinfo. “It’s a money grab.”

However, each of these safety zones by a small park has a high crash rate on the nearby main streets, according to a Chicago Department of Transportation analysis. There were 228 crashes in Keystone’s zone between 2009 and 2012, including five collisions with serious or fatal injuries; speeding was factor in 27 percent of the crashes.

The Keystone zone was ranked the 156th most dangerous out of the city’s 1,570 safety zones, putting it in the top 10 percent. The other safety zones with speed cams near small parks have similarly high crash numbers.

Granted, only 18 percent of the Keystone collisions involved children, and only 8 percent involved people on foot or bike. But taken together, this data suggests that the cams were put in to address the area’s high crash rate by protecting all road users, not just kids walking to the playground.

A still shot of a CDOT crash map for the Keystone Park safety zone, which is outlined in purple. Green dots indicate crashes that involved speeding, red dots indicate serious or fatal crashes, yellow dots indicate crashes involving youth, and blue dots indicate that a pedestrian or bicyclist was struck. A single crash may be represented by multiple dots, and due to mapping overlap, not all dots are visible.Credit: (Chicago Department of Transportation)

CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey confirmed last week that a high crash rate within the safety zone around a park, rather than high foot traffic and usage at the park, determines whether the area gets cams. Special attention is paid to speed- and youth-related collisions, as well as areas where 30 percent or more of the population is 18 or younger.

Claffey added that the city’s speed cams are reducing injury crashes. A preliminary analysis found that crashes with injuries dropped by 4 percent citywide between 2012—the year before the first speed cams were installed—and 2014. However, injury crashes dropped 18 percent—a dramatic improvement—within the 21 safety zones where speed cams were installed in 2013. Severe and fatal crashes went down a full 22 percent.

CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld argued that the Tribune’s focus on supposedly unfair ticketing practices is “noise obscuring the fact that speeding, especially ten or more miles per hour, is really dangerous.” “The Tribune is not acknowledging that,” she said. “They’re saying the problem of traffic enforcement is more important than the problem of traffic safety.”

While Kidwell and Epton are correct that Emanuel has been less than upfront by claiming speed cameras are solely about protecting children, that doesn’t mean they’re merely a cash grab. Rather, the numbers show that the cams are discouraging dangerously fast driving, so that fewer people, of any age, are being seriously injured or killed.

Let’s stop pretending the speed cam program is just about kids. It’s about keeping everyone safe, and the city shouldn’t be afraid to say that.  v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.