By The Editorial Board Chicago Tribune
For many Chicagoans, the thrill of the daily mail drop is now tempered by the high probability of a missive, or several missives, from the city’s Department of Finance. Open it up and there’s a demand for cash. Maybe $35. Maybe $100.
And if that letter gets lost for two or three weeks at the bottom of a pile? The amount instantly doubles. It’s 200 bucks, please. Or you’re headed into collection, pal.
ComEd and Peoples Gas charge a mandated modest late fee for a forgotten bill, so as not to take advantage of either a mistake or ongoing fiscal distress; Chicago rapidly socks its citizens with a premium every bit as rough as the fine itself.
When we say “many” Chicagoans are getting these demands, we don’t understate. According to recent Tribune reporting on those notorious speed cameras, a whopping 322,447 citations were issued in the first two months after Mayor Lori Lightfoot had the speed cameras readjusted in March to ding drivers for going even 6 mph over the speed limit. That will be worth $11.3 million in revenue for the city of Chicago, assuming the alleged violators pay up.
We don’t advocate speeding on Chicago’s roads and we’ll even stipulate that the presence of the cameras has made some of us, at least, slow down. But if the cameras are snagging that many otherwise upstanding Illinois citizens — 322,447 tickets in two months! — something is out of whack.
As a way of making money, and these cameras are pulling in lots of cash, the cameras come with all kinds of inequities. For one thing, the fines don’t take ability to pay into account. If you make a six-figure income, you might not blink at 35 bucks, especially since there is no permanent record on your license. But if you’re toiling for minimum wage, that same bite can be a real hardship.
For another, there is a built-in geographic unfairness. On DuSable Lake Shore Drive, the entire flow of traffic routinely goes 10-15 mph over the limit with apparent impunity, day in and day out, whereas a driver headed down, say, one particular block on Ashland Avenue on the North Side of town, or East Morgan Drive on the South Side, gets hit with a fine for far less egregious an offense. It all depends where you live and where you have to drive to work. How is that fair?
Let’s be frank: Your odds of getting a speeding ticket anywhere without a camera for going 6 mph over the limit are close to zero. But if there’s a camera down the block and you happen to accelerate to 26 … Ka-ching for the city! Some people are being caught several times in a week.
Worse yet, the cameras don’t know who is driving, causing all kinds of strife in multi-driver households, or where cars are shared. Often, the owner unfairly gets stuck with the bill after the actual culprit protests innocence. Or nothing gets paid in the melee, and car owners quickly find themselves with serious debt, inextricably leading to the dreaded boot and the notorious impound lot on Lower Wacker Drive, a dystopian “Mad Max”-like quarter of the city where nobody has a good day. And in many cases, the owner was an innocent party.
Rahm Emanuel, who put in the cameras while he was mayor, made the argument they were safety aids to protect people in parks. In some cases, that’s a fair description. But many of these so-called parks are hardly epic patches of green and cameras now ding away with nary a pedestrian in sight. In some cases, even late at night. At least Emanuel kept the settings more reasonable. Lightfoot’s administration has gone much further, even though the mayor has claimed a desire to wean her city from its addiction to fees and fines.
Chicago doesn’t need dangerous drivers. But in some parts of the city, these cameras are out of control. The sheer numbers of people being caught is evidence that we’re accustomed to the buffer zone that applies everywhere else. Ten mph over is reasonable. Six mph over is not. Living in the city is difficult for many people right now; some reasonable compassion on this front surely has merit.
The danger, of course, is that all these millions of dollars of new revenue will become so attractive to the city that it will become near impossible for government to forgo them. But the money often is coming from people who simply cannot afford to pay. Even if the mayor lacks sympathy there, surely the huge, rapid penalties are worth a reexamination. Once they’re slapped on the bill, many people can’t pay at all.
The mayor has argued speeding is a choice. Sure. But by that logic, the cameras could be set at 1 mile over the limit and then the revenue would probably climb to $25 million in two months, assuming the cameras could click that fast. Lightfoot doesn’t do that because a) she knows that’s not fair and b) she knows citizens would rebel.
If 6 mph over is snagging that many people, common sense should apply. Take the cameras back to 10 and make those penalties less severe. We can watch out for safety without being unreasonable. Or focusing on the money.
Original article: chicagotribune.com