Across the street from a car wash, next to a fenced-off former lumber yard stands one of Chicago’s most prolific park safety speed cameras.
And two blocks west on Lawrence Avenue, on the other side of a railway viaduct, sits the small park the camera is ostensibly protecting from speeding cars.ADVERTISING
Until last March, that camera and more than 100 like it around the city could ticket drivers going at least 10 mph over the limit. But after Mayor Lori Lightfoot dropped the threshold to 6 mph over in March, the Lawrence Avenue speed monitor — and lots of others — got mighty busy issuing the $35 tickets.
In March and April, that single location west of Cicero Avenue in the Northwest Side Jefferson Park neighborhood resulted in more than 12,300 tickets for speeding 6 to 10 mph above the 25 mph park zone speed limit, according to a Tribune analysis of the ticket data for those months.
One of the drivers affected was Julind Agalliu. The 22-year-old Ravenswood resident tallied three $35 tickets within a five-day period in March, and before the month was over was dinged again for $35 by a camera a few miles away. In three of the four cases, he was caught going 6 mph over the limit.
“The cameras, where they put them, it felt very sneaky, very predatory in a way,” Agalliu said. “… It’s like an extra hidden tax for being a Chicago resident.”
Whatever drivers think of the new rules — which Lightfoot said she enacted to keep pedestrians, cyclists and motorists safe — the numbers suggest the change will be a big windfall for the city, at the expense of speeding drivers.
In all, cameras across Chicago issued 322,447 of the $35 tickets during the first two months, which will bring in $11.3 million to city coffers if violators pay all the fines.
That’s a nearly 17-fold increase over those same months in 2019, when the city was only hitting drivers with $35 citations for going exactly 10 mph over the limit, and 19,480 such tickets were issued. Drivers caught on camera at higher speeds receive $100 tickets.
Within five minutes of the lower standard taking effect at 6 a.m. on March 1, the cameras had caught and ticketed nine drivers going 6 to 10 mph over the limit.
Beccah Stains, a Lakeview resident, was cited for going 37 mph in a 30 mph zone on North Ashland Avenue on March 19. She said she’d heard the minimum speed for citations had been lowered, but she didn’t know where. And she took issue with the timing of the change.
Receiving her ticket in the mail “was pretty upsetting, especially in a global pandemic when it’s very obvious that people are struggling for money and to pay rent and not be evicted,” Stains said. “To then have a really trivial way to tax people, it seems very sneaky to me.”
But it was another camera across town that nabbed the most drivers going 6 to 10 mph over the limit during the first two months of the new enforcement bench mark. That one, on East Morgan Drive on the South Side near the University of Chicago, handed out 16,996 tickets to drivers at those speed levels.
Morgan Drive curves through Washington Park adjacent to a public pool, trails and ball fields. Ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th, whose ward includes most of the park, said she was skeptical about the safety concerns, saying there are “hardly, if ever” accidents at that location in which people get hurt.
“At the end of the day, the cameras are supposed to be located for safety, but they’re just located to tax poor people to make money for the city,” Taylor said. “This is the mayor trying to balance her budget on the backs of struggling Chicagoans. It’s the city of Chicago beating up on the very people they claim to love and respect.”
Veteran Chicago music producer Steve Albini said he’d like to see the speed camera program provide some kind of leniency or forgiveness for those with economic hardships.
But for people like him who can afford a $35 ticket “it seems like a nicely implemented, mild reminder to keep speed under control in those areas,” he said.
Albini was ticketed twice in April by separate cameras along North Western Avenue for driving 6 mph over the limit in a 30 mph zone and 9 mph over in a 20 mph zone.
“I don’t fault anybody but me for driving too fast,” he said. “And I don’t fault anybody but me for not knowing that they had lowered the threshold for the ticketing.”
He cited another reason for favoring the cameras: They remove from the equation potential police bias over who’s pulled over and cited.
“I would rather have speed cameras sending out tickets to people when they cross the speed threshold than leave that to the discretion of police officers, who have shown that they will abuse that discretion,” he said. “I think speed cameras in more affluent areas collecting money passively from speeders is less harmful socially than those same cameras in economically struggling areas.”
As it’s currently run, the speed camera program nabs thousands of drivers in a variety of neighborhoods:
- In the Far South Side West Pullman neighborhood, a camera on 127th Street issued 7,881 of the $35 tickets during the first two months in which the city gave less leeway to speeders.
- A camera a block north of Lawrence on Cicero Avenue dinged 10,819 drivers under the new rules.
- Closer to the lake, 7,992 of the $35 tickets were sent out from a camera in the 1100 block of West Irving Park Road.
- On the West Side, 4,273 motorists got caught by a camera in the 5800 block of West Jackson Boulevard.
In all, there are 162 cameras in 69 “safety zones” within one-eighth a mile of a Chicago school or park, but not all of them are always operating. The March and April data the city provided tallied tickets issued from 158 cameras.
With some cameras deactivated while schools are closed for the summer, there are currently 119 of the devices recording vehicle speeds and issuing tickets, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation.
Lightfoot included the speed change in her 2021 budget while looking for ways to close a $1.2 billion deficit and estimated all fines and fees would bring in about $39 million more this year than last year.
In addition to the increased take from the camera tickets, city officials said they expected to bring in more money in 2021 by aggressively issuing citations for “safety-related issues” like cars double parking and blocking loading zones, along with better collection of outstanding fines.
By that standard,the new speed tickets are set to exceed financial expectations. If the city averages the same number of tickets per month as it did between March and April for the rest of the year, that will work out to more than 1.6 million of them total, for $56.4 million in city coffers.
A fraction of those would have been issued anyway in prior years under the old rules for going 10 mph over, but Lightfoot’s change will undoubtedly be a boon to the city’s bottom line.
In justifying the lower threshold for tickets, Lightfoot — who campaigned on a pledge to end Chicago’s “addiction” to fines and fees — argued last year that with fewer cars on the street during the pandemic, remaining vehicles were driving faster.
That put pedestrians and bicyclists at greater risk, she said, pointing to an increase in traffic fatalities during 2020 to help make her case.
And in response to the latest speed camera data, the Lightfoot administration noted there were 151 traffic fatalities in Chicago in 2020, 33 more than in 2019.
“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,” the administration statement reads in part. “In order to avoid a speeding violation, drivers simply have to observe the speed limit.”
Yet, at least in March and April, there was no increase in the number of tickets for faster cars during the pandemic. The city saw the number of $100 tickets, issued to speeders going 11 or more mph over the limit, drop from 66,741 in March and April 2019 to 64,193 in those same months in 2020, and 59,616 this year.
Critics of the way Chicago’s fines harm poor and working-class residents ripped the mayor’s plan when she introduced it, while cycling and pedestrian safety groups applauded it.
The city announced in 2014 that the number of speeders caught by the cameras decreased on average by 43% in the first eight months the cameras were operational, indicating drivers slowed down after they realized they would get busted for going too fast.
Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel created the speed camera program in 2013, after the state legislature gave him the power to install up to 300 of them, which Emanuel said was a way to protect children playing in parks or outside schools. As is the case with the Lawrence Avenue camera, the devices are sometimes blocks away from an actual park or school.
Though Emanuel always had the authority to ticket cars going as little as 6 mph over the limit, he never exercised it, instead ordering the city to set the cameras to ding motorists speeding by exactly 10 mph with the $35 tickets. Cars going 11 or more miles per hour too fast get $100 tickets.
Original article: chicagotribune.com