Chicago, IL

Rule Implementation Change Causes Chicago’s Speed Cameras to Produce Hundreds of Thousands of Tickets

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

The change in implementing the existing law for automated ticketing for speeding in Chicago is likely to be very lucrative if motorists don't get the message.

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It's a rule of thumb many motorists have long lived by: Drive less than 10 miles per hour above the speed limit and you won't get a ticket. Well, that is not the case anymore in Chicago, especially in regards to automated tickets.

The Chicago Children’s Safety Zone Program was initiated in 2013 to protect children, pedestrians, and other vulnerable road users, by requiring motorists to slow down and obey speed limits, especially in areas near schools and parks or they’ll be issued a ticket. The Program uses automated safety cameras to monitor and ticket motorists who are breaking the law by exceeding the posted speed limits in each area. Whoever is registered as the owner of the speeding vehicle will be issued the speeding ticket by mail. The safety zones are designated as within 1/8th of a mile from Chicago parks or schools.

In the first two years after Chicago’s Children's Safety Zone Program began, more than 2.1 million tickets were issued by 146 cameras near parks and schools throughout the city. Most of these were warnings. While the cameras were evenly distributed between parks and schools, most tickets were generated by park cameras because they operate for longer hours, with there being fewer restrictions on more well-traveled streets.

The 72 cameras placed around 28 Chicago schools generated nearly 500,000 tickets and nearly $19 million in fines, records show. Drivers caught by automatic camera radar who were going 6 to 10 miles over the limit could be fined $35, although until recently the city wasn’t enforcing that law. It wasn’t until motorists hit a threshold of 10 mph over the speed limit that warning or tickets for $35 were actually issued. Drivers going 11 mph or more over the limit were fined $100.

However, on March 1, 2021, speed cameras from all over the Chicago area began issuing either warnings for first time offenses or real tickets for repeat offenses to motorists traveling 6 to 10 mph over the speed limit in these specified “Children’s Safety Zones” near certain parks and schools.

Yesterday, the CBS 2 Investigation team issued a report that looked at publicly available data as well as information received from a freedom of information act request for the five week period before and after the change was put in place. The results showed that tickets issued in these areas citywide rose from 35,784 in the five weeks prior to March 1 to 398,233 in the five weeks after. Those 398,000 tickets equated to $871,035 in fines.

Some people who live near the cameras and have noticed the increase in them going off believe this to be a scam aimed at raising money for the city, not an effort to increase safety for children. Others claim that cameras have been installed a few blocks from a small park on a street where children almost never walk.

Chicago drivers said they're frustrated with the prospect of more speeding fines during one of the worst economic downturns in US history.

"We are struggling, and I don't feel that's fair to enforce that so soon," said driver Elsa Rivera.

Anthony Beale, 9th Ward Alderman, agrees with angered motorists. "This is the worst time on earth for us to be looking to find ways to raise revenue basically on the backs of people who can least afford it," he said.

He added that new speed camera enforcement plans near schools and parks are there just to “nickel and dime” Chicagoans to help fill the city's budget shortfall. "This is all a grab for more money more revenue, because we know the city is hurting," Beale said.

Community activist Mark Wallace, is also angry about the new policy with regard to safety cameras. “How disgusting to prey on poor people this way,” said. He’s been fighting to abolish red light cameras for years, and thought he had an ally to not impose regressive fines and fees in then candidate Lori Lightfoot.

However, Lightfoot is on the hot seat once again with regard to this new initiative. “This is something the Mayor ran on and promised that she would not do,” said Wallace.

Lightfoot made that promise during a CBS2 Mayoral Debate two years ago when she said, “I’m determined to make sure that we’re not continuing to balance the budget on the backs of people who are least able to handle it.”

The Mayor’s office responded:

“The change in the speeding threshold was implemented in response to an alarming increase in vehicle speeding and traffic fatalities . . . Forty-three more people died in traffic crashes in Chicago in 2020, a 45 percent increase over 2019. These deaths have occurred at a time when fewer cars were on the road due to the pandemic and City traffic data showed cars were driving 8-10 percent faster on average than at the same time in the previous year. The goal is not to issue tickets, but to encourage safer driving behavior and discourage speeding that is correlated with more severe injuries and deaths in traffic crashes. In order to avoid a speeding violation, drivers simply have to observe the speed limit.”

Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi defended the position to enforce speeding laws that are already on the books. “What we know from the data is that folks who get a ticket — 80% of ‘em don’t get another ticket for another year. Meaning it’s working,” Biagi said.

Lightfoot pointed out that it’s not hard to avoid a speeding violation. All drivers have to do is observe the legal speed limit.

Read the complete reply from the Chicago Mayoral Office here.

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