Mayor Lori Lightfoot defended her plan to begin issuing speed camera tickets for cars going 6 mph over the limit, declaring on Monday “it’s clearly a public safety issue” while pushing back against criticism that the proposal is a cash grab that will hurt lower-income Chicago motorists.
Lightfoot also said the city has seen “exponentially” more “speed-related accidents and deaths” this year, which she used to support her argument for implementing new speed camera standards that will catch more drivers.
“This is about making sure that we keep communities safe,” Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot made her comments days after the Tribune first reported the mayor’s proposal to lower the standard for speed camera tickets as part of her plan to close a $1.2 billion deficit.
But it remains to be seen whether the public will believe Lightfoot that the cameras are for public safety or fault the mayor for going back on a key campaign pledge to end what she’s called the city’s “addiction” to fines and fees.
A Tribune review of publicly available city crash data shows a more complicated picture of the safety situation than Lightfoot presented, with total crashes actually down for the first nine months of 2019 compared with the same period in 2020, from 88,757 to 69,480, records show.
City officials said deaths on the road are up in 2020 — 100 through September, versus 72 in the same period last year, with far less traffic. They also said city cameras are registering drivers speeding more — an average of roughly 2 mph faster than last year — which suggests to them that people are driving faster and causing more serious crashes.
Still, it’s not clear how many are caused by speeding. The Tribune analyzed city crash report data available online and compared the first nine months of 2020 and 2019. The analysis found that fatal crashes blamed specifically on people driving recklessly, over the speed limit, too fast for conditions or too fast to avoid a crash are up by one — from 19 to 20.
Serious crashes blamed on any of those factors — which resulted in death or incapacitating injuries — are down 20% year over year, from 356 in 2019 to 286 in 2020.
Lightfoot officials argued that most of the drops in serious crashes happened earlier in the pandemic, when traffic volume was significantly down. They also said the city’s own crash report data lacks complete data on causes, and that speed was a contributing factor in more cases than the numbers let on.
Some members of the City Council already have expressed criticism of the mayor’s plan. During a budget hearing on Monday, Far North Side Ald. Maria Hadden, 49th, said the administration should go after speeders on Lake Shore Drive rather than ticketing people driving near neighborhood schools and parks.
“Living and representing the 49th Ward, I’ve got Rogers Park, beyond Lake Shore Drive, and as someone who used to frequently use Lake Shore Drive, when I think about opportunities for increasing safety, especially traffic safety and how it could overlap with enforcement, instead of grabbing folks — I know it’s not just going to be in the central business district, but in the neighborhoods — for going 6 mph over the speed limit, couldn’t we just do more enforcement on Lake Shore Drive?” Hadden asked.
“I think of all the folks who are coming from the northern suburbs on north Lake Shore Drive, they treat it like a superhighway,” she said. “And I know the same is on south Lake Shore Drive and South Shore Drive. So just throwing it out there, if we’re looking for more revenue, we could really increase safety. People fly 70 mph in a 40 (mph) zone.”
It’s unclear if Lightfoot is considering such a move. But the city is relying on a big increase in fines and fees to balance her budget.
And Northwest Side Ald. Samantha Nugent, 39th, wondered about the optics of the policy for the city.
“This looks like something that, if we’re also asking folks to increase their taxes and now we’re saying ‘If you go 6 miles over the limit we’re going to flag you there,’ I’m just kind of curious how this is going to look,” Nugent said.
Mari Castaldi, director of policy and advocacy at the Chicago Jobs Council, which has helped push fines and fees reform, wasn’t convinced by Lightfoot’s public safety argument.
Noting that motorists can have their licenses suspended if they have five or more automated camera tickets, Castaldi said, “If this policy change was about safety, it would ensure that enforcement mechanisms for speed camera tickets came down the hardest on people who commit the most offenses, not those who can’t pay.
“That’s not how it currently works — for example, the city still opts to suspend driver’s licenses of people with five or more unpaid automated camera ticket fines,” Castaldi said. “That means that if John gets 10 speed camera tickets and pays them all, and Jane gets five tickets and can’t afford to pay them — Jane’s license gets suspended, but John faces no further consequences.”
Asked about Castaldi’s criticism, budget spokeswoman Kristen Cabanban said the city’s worked on payment plan reforms “exactly so that people would have a pathway to compliance.”
According to budget documents released last week as the mayor unveiled her spending proposal for next year, the city expects to bring in $381.5 million in 2021 from fines, forfeitures and penalties. That’s about $38 million more than Lightfoot’s administration projected for 2020.
The big hike in 2021 will come thanks to speed enforcement and the city ticketing more for “safety-related issues” such as cars double parking and blocking loading zones, along with better collection of outstanding fines, a city budget spokeswoman said.
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As a candidate, Lightfoot promised to reform the city’s fines and fees program, saying it was regressive and focused on generating revenue, not safety.
“The red-light camera program was sold to Chicagoans as a public safety solution, but it’s really been about revenue — and those fines fall disproportionately on people of color,” Lightfoot said at the time.
Now, Lightfoot wants to start ticketing drivers going just a few miles over the limit at a time many Chicagoans are struggling to make ends meet thanks to the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Monday, Lightfoot tried to distinguish between speeding tickets and “nonmoving violations.”
“Unlike fines for nonmoving violations that did fall disproportionately on Black and brown Chicagoans, and drove people into bankruptcy, people have control over whether or not they speed or not,” Lightfoot said. “The signs are very well-marked and it’s my hope that people will take this as an opportunity to check their speed because we can’t afford to have more people injured and more lives lost.”
Under the mayor’s proposal, anyone caught by a camera driving from 6 to 9 mph above the limit would get a warning. Getting caught on camera a second time would prompt a $35 ticket in the mail.
Currently, only those caught driving 10 mph above the limit get the $35 tickets. Tickets of $100 are issued to drivers caught speeding by 11 mph or more above the posted limit. The city has the authority to issue the tickets at lower speeds but has never used it.
The speed camera program has been controversial from the moment then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced it in 2013. He pitched the network of cameras to catch speeders around parks and schools as a way to keep children safe, but critics painted it as a cash grab, pointing out many of the cameras were only tenuously connected to Chicago Park District and Chicago Public Schools properties.
There are a total of 88 speed cameras operating in Chicago, 72 in the vicinity of parks and 16 others near schools. There are 73 cameras disabled due to COVID-19, according to Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Claffey.
Chicago’s red-light cameras also have drawn blowback from officials and activists who argue they do little to make intersections safe. A Tribune-commissioned report found that at intersections with low rates of injury accidents, the cameras may make things more dangerous.
Within months of taking office in 2019, Lightfoot shepherded through the City Council a series of reforms to the city’s fines-and-fees system that ended the practice of suspending the driver’s licenses of people who haven’t paid parking tickets, reduced vehicle sticker penalties and created a six-month payment plan to give those with ticket debt more time to pay.
The controversy over speed cameras isn’t the first for Lightfoot involving fines and fees. Earlier this year, the city issued more than 35,000 parking tickets during a period when Lightfoot told the public they’d be getting a break on ticket enforcement because of the COVID-19 outbreak, as the Tribune has reported.