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In Debate Over Chicago’s Speed Cameras, Concerns Over Safety, Racial Disparities Collide – Melissa Sanchez and Emily Hopkins

In Debate Over Chicago’s Speed Cameras, Concerns Over Safety, Racial Disparities Collide

by Melissa Sanchez and Emily Hopkins

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

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As Chicago’s City Council debates whether to rein in a controversial expansion of the city’s speed camera ticketing program, elected officials are wrestling with whether the devices have improved traffic safety enough to justify their financial burden on Black and Latino motorists.

It’s a difficult, complex question, and it comes at a moment when the city has witnessed a series of high-profile fatal traffic crashes — including several involving children.

In this context, Mayor Lori Lightfoot is defending her policy lowering the threshold for speeding tickets from 10 mph over the limit to 6. The lowered threshold, which comes with $35 tickets and went into effect in March 2021, is projected to bring in some $40 million to $45 million in revenue this year. (Previously, the city issued $35 tickets to motorists caught speeding 10 mph over the limit and $100 tickets for those caught at higher speeds.)

The City Council is expected to vote this month on a measure proposed by Alderman Anthony Beale, who represents a ward on the South Side, to repeal the lowered threshold.

Beale and his allies say the mayor’s move was a cash grab that comes at the expense of motorists who can least afford it. Lightfoot and those who support maintaining the lowered threshold say they are motivated by safety.

ProPublica’s reporting has helped inform the debate. Since 2018, we have reported on how Chicago’s ticketing system — including parking, compliance and automated red-light and speed camera citations — disproportionately hurt Black motorists, sending tens of thousands into bankruptcy.

In January, we reported on how households in Black and Latino ZIP codes received camera tickets at about twice the rate of those in white ZIP codes. That reporting was primarily based on an analysis of data on red-light and speed camera citations issued between 2015 and 2019, but we also examined tickets issued to motorists going 6 to 9 mph over the speed limit in the first two months of the program’s expansion. Racial disparities persisted.

ProPublica identified some road design and neighborhood-based differences that seem to contribute to the disparities in ticketing, such as wider streets with more lanes that lend themselves to speeding in areas with higher proportions of Black and Latino residents.

A study from the University of Illinois at Chicago released in January found similar racial disparities in camera ticketing in addition to a greater financial burden from late penalties on households in low-income Black and Latino neighborhoods. The study also found a 15% reduction in the expected number of crashes leading to fatal and incapacitating injuries during a three-year period after cameras were installed.

Beale’s motion passed out of the Finance Committee in June; when a vote was scheduled for the full City Council, Lightfoot’s allies used a parliamentary maneuver to postpone it, reportedly to buy time to kill it. It’s now expected to go to the City Council on July 20. If it’s approved, Lightfoot is expected to veto the measure, which would be a first for her administration.

Given all this, here are a few important points to consider as the City Council weighs whether to change the program:

1. There has been no extensive analysis of the safety benefits of the lowered threshold for issuing speeding tickets.

City officials pointed to the UIC research on the safety effects of the speed cameras as a reason to keep the lower threshold in place. That study, however, covers a time period before the lowered threshold took effect.

In response to questions, city Department of Transportation officials said that the average recorded speeds of all vehicles passing by cameras dropped about 1 mph and the number of tickets issued to drivers going 11 mph or more over the limit has also dropped since the change. In addition, the city said there is preliminary evidence that the number of injury-producing crashes near cameras has decreased since the threshold was implemented. These changes, the city said, reflect a “collective slowing down of vehicles.”

2. The city has not acted on some of the UIC research, which it commissioned.

Stacey Sutton and Nebiyou Tilahun, both of UIC’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, found that the safety benefits from the speed cameras were not universal. At 16 of the 101 camera sites studied, researchers observed what they called a “marked” increase in crashes over what would have been expected had the devices not been installed at those locations.

They recommended that, where cameras have not reduced crashes, the city move the devices to other locations or turn them off, and that it examine the decision-making process it uses to choose where to put them.

That process is ongoing, the city said. “We are obligated to perform an empirical and thoughtful process, before abruptly removing a safety tool from our streets,” city officials said in a statement. “With that said, we have not ruled out moving or eliminating cameras and are prepared to make changes to the program in the near future.” In January, city officials had told ProPublica they would not consider reducing the number of the speed cameras in the program.

Sutton said she was disappointed the city had not yet acted on the recommendations. “The cameras do improve safety,” she said, “but they don’t all improve safety all of the time.”

The city said it did respond to the UIC findings on racial disparities. Before the report was published, the mayor rolled out a program that offers low-income motorists some debt forgiveness if they sign up for a plan to pay off some of their recently accrued citations, minus any late penalties.

3. Nationally, cities are looking at Chicago — and learning from its mistakes.

“The numbers [showing racial disparities] are stark and awful, and it’s a warning sign to many of us to think differently and to step back,” said Leah Shahum, the founder and executive director of Vision Zero Network, a national nonprofit group that helps communities set and reach the goals of eliminating traffic fatalities and severe injuries. “We are asking the question: Are we thinking of unintentional consequences?”

She pointed to examples of cities and states on the West Coast that have tried to incorporate equity and infrastructure into their camera programs. In Washington state, for example, lawmakers require cities with new speed camera programs to direct some of the ticket revenue toward improving safety for pedestrians, cyclists and people with disabilities. In addition, state law requires cities that install new speed cameras to produce an equity report at the end of a pilot period.

In California, lawmakers have considered — but not passed — legislation that would allow some cities to try speed camera programs as long as equity is taken into account in the placement of the devices, among other restrictions. The only way cities could maintain cameras is if they could be shown to improve safety through a reduction in the number of tickets issued.

Concerns about racial equity in automated camera enforcement have been picking up across the country and even internationally since the ProPublica and UIC reports. In February, the nonprofit transportation news site Streetsblog New York examined New York City’s camera enforcement program, raising questions about inequities in infrastructure and ticketing that are similar to those in Chicago.

In Toronto, transportation safety advocates supported a measure this winter to require the city to conduct an equity analysis after an expansion of that city’s speed camera program. That initiative, which was ultimately withdrawn, aimed to ensure the automated enforcement did not “result in over policing of racialized communities and people,” according to the measure’s language.

Meanwhile, Priya Sarathy Jones, national policy and campaigns director with the nonprofit Fines and Fees Justice Center, said she’s been getting calls from more and more cities that are interested in camera enforcement as an alternative to potentially biased police officers making traffic stops.

“We’re also seeing that there’s a lot more acknowledgement that it’s not a straightforward solution,” she said. “We’re getting questions about how and if we can implement an equitable automated enforcement program, and if you can, what does that look like?”

4. Traffic safety and racial equity advocates agree there needs to be more emphasis — and money spent — on making streets and infrastructure safer for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.

Olatunji Oboi Reed, the president and CEO of Equiticity, a Chicago-based racial equity in transportation organization, supports repealing the lowered speeding threshold because it would reduce the volume of tickets to Black and Latino motorists.

Instead of relying on a punitive strategy, Reed said, “what the city should be doing is reengineering our streets to reduce traffic violence and reduce the need for automated enforcement.”

Groups that have long supported speed camera ticketing also want to see a larger focus on the underlying infrastructure.

“What Chicago really needs is a citywide approach to redesign dangerous streets and add life-saving infrastructure that protects people when walking and biking and makes the street safer for everyone,” Kyle Whitehead, a spokesperson for the Active Transportation Alliance, a local road safety advocacy group, said in a statement.

Although Active Transportation initially spoke out against the lowered threshold, saying it was unclear how low-income and minority motorists would be affected, it now wants to keep the lower threshold in place. “High-crash streets in majority Black and Brown neighborhoods should be prioritized for safety improvements to ensure rates of speeding decline and residents in these areas are not overburdened with fines,” Whitehead said.

Sutton, one of the researchers behind the UIC report, said the city should spend the ticket revenue it’s getting from the lowered threshold on infrastructure and traffic-calming measures, including reducing the number of lanes, installing speed bumps and adding signs that tell motorists how fast they’re going.

We don’t actually know exactly how that revenue is spent. The city is limited by state law in how it can use the money it gets from speed camera tickets; police spending accounts for the vast majority of what’s allowed, according to budget documents. But city officials said they could not provide a breakdown of how the additional revenue from the lowered threshold is spent.

The city said it has made significant investments in pedestrian infrastructure during Lightfoot’s administration. Officials pointed to her capital infrastructure plan, which provides $20 million a year for programming aimed at eliminating traffic fatalities and injuries, and an average of 400 pedestrian safety improvements installed a year. The city also plans to install 100 more of those digital speed signs near speed cameras this year.