Speed cameras: Aldermen express their concerns at hearing (part 3 of 3)


Speed cameras have been used around the world for decades, reducing speeding everywhere they’re installed. This speed camera is installed in Switzerland. Photo by Kecko. 

The adoption of a speed camera system in Chicago is multi-faceted: it goes beyond encouraging people to speed less (which would increase the safety of all people in the streets), but touches on other issues like surveillance and how contracts and bidding are conducted. It has also induced people to think about other ways the city can achieve the same safety goals (fewer crashes, injuries and fatalities).

This post is part 3 of 3 about the hearing in council chambers on Wednesday, April 11, 2012, I will synthesize the concerns the aldermen discussed, their frustrations with how the automated speed camera enforcement system would work, and disappointment in being unable to receive (for weeks) the information they requested. I apologize profusely if there’s inaccurate information (like, are there really 85 schools with basketball programs?); I may have written that information down incorrectly as it’s hard to understand everyone if they don’t speak properly into the microphone.

Read part 1, part 2, or read all of our coverage on speed cameras. In this hearing, aldermen on the Pedestrian and Traffic Safety committee aired their questions alongside aldermen not on the committee – I’ve noted which aldermen are not on the committee.

Transportation commissioner’s testimony

First thing in the meeting, transportation commissioner Gabe Klein gave his testimony (the following is paraphrased except where quoted):

The children of Chicago are the least able to protect themselves. “The transportation network doesn’t place the right priority”. We know speed is determinant of serious injury or fatality. “The faster a car moves the more damage it causes when it hits something”. The fatality rate has an exponential relationship with speed. From 2005-2010, 3,000 people were seriously injured or killed in Chicago. 800 were children. “Let’s be honest, they’re not often accidents. We only ask that drivers follow existing traffic laws”. 32% of children walk to school.

CDOT has a four-pronged approach to transportation safety:

  1. Education – how to traverse urban environment safely
  2. Encouragement – walk/bike to school safely, but also to improve health wellness
  3. Engineering/re-engineering – infrastructure investments, ped refuges, bump outs, LPI
  4. Enforcement – without enforcement, the other three are not as effective.

60% reduction in pedestrian fatalities within 1/4 mile of red light cameras.

Mr. Klein then summarized how an automated speed camera enforcement system would work (SCE). Again this is paraphrased:

The first violation will in fact be a warning. There will be ample signage on the streets. There will also be a 90-day education campaign (ahead of the program). On a weekly basis, the CDOT website will be up to date on the locations of installed speed cameras (mobile or fixed) and the speed limit at that location. CDOT will also provide quarterly reports: speeding data, tickets issued, fines collected. It’s not intended to be punitive.

If you drive 6-10 MPH over the speed limit, you would get a $35 fine (reduced from $50 in this revised ordinance). If 11 MPH over, the fine is $100. These are civil and administration penalties and do not affect your driver’s license status [except if you don’t pay them, then you could be subject to suspension].

We will create an advisory group, to include members of communities, and this committee’s chair and vice chair. The advisory group would review crash stats and other data and weigh in on the most effective locations for SCE to reduce speeding and crashes.

We are focusing enforcement times on when children are most active.

My take

I appreciate Mr. Klein’s comments about the lack of the transportation network to safely transport its users when he said, “The transportation network doesn’t place the right priority”. And I appreciated his comments again when he said that they are trying to change the culture. I have met Mr. Klein many times and I have spoken to him personally, for a period longer than any Chicagoan would likely be able to do (as has John). He is very sincere in wanting to make a culture of transportation safety in Chicago and there is evidence of this in the strategies that his department has implemented since his arrival less than one year ago (although we haven’t liked all of them), as well as in the strategies he wants to implement.

Mr. Klein bluntly pointed out that “we have a culture that says speeding is okay”. Typically, in this city and this country, we call for safety improvements after a tragedy, but never before, even though we have the knowledge and capability of preventing most traffic deaths (crashes are the number one cause of death of minors in the United States).

Unfortunately, Mr. Klein is just one member of his department and there’s a lot of institutionalized knowledge and resistance that will take time to reeducate and defeat, respectively, while implementing an organizational culture that values safety and facilitates sustainable transportation modes more efficiently than in the past. (It could take longer than the time Mr. Klein might work there – if he stays longer than 2 years, that would be longer than each of the prior 4 commissioners).

There was much hullabaloo about the revenues in the hearing. Mr. Klein stressed that the Department of Transportation (CDOT) would not be receiving any revenues whatsoever. Rose Kelly, of the Law Department, confirmed this multiple times (in response to different wordings of the same question from several aldermen). The revenues would be placed into a distinct account from which expenditures would have to be authorized by city council. In other words, if this is a “money grab”, as many online, in the newspapers, and testifying at the hearing accuse the mayor of, it would be at the city council’s authorization. There was a problem in that a representative from the Budget Office was not present. Said committee chair Margaret Laurino (39th Ward), “‘I was expecting somebody from budget to be here – they’re not here” (via Beachwood Reporter).

Now on with the reporting! Everything below is paraphrased from my own notes taken during the three hour meeting, unless in quotes. GK means Gabe Klein. Scott Kubly is the transportation department’s managing deputy. The concerns are organized by category, in bold text. Categories in part 3 are Contracts, Safety, and Surveillance.


Alderman James Cappleman, 46th Ward

JC: Who would own the cameras?
GK: In a nutshell, the RLCs are owned by the city. There’s no incentive to the provider to write tickets.

Scott Kubly: The RFP will be technology agnostic – we won’t define the technology as that would limit the number of providers. We intend to have an RFP panel with Budget, CPD, CDOT, and so on. We’ll also have a technical advisory panel (non-voting). We plan to evaluate the different vendors (and their technology) in a pilot. Our goal is to run a very transparent and robust process.

Alderman Mary O’Connor, 40th Ward

MO: What kind of ownership are we anticipating?
GK: We own red light cameras. Our vision is that we’ll have control of SCE. I’m saying control not to be slick but because there are lots of different financing options.

Alderman Leslie Hairston, 5th Ward – not on the committee

LH:  “I’m going to go back to my constituents and say I don’t know how much it will cost”.
GK: We want this to be zero cost.

LH: We’re trying to help you, but you’re not helping us help you. [She then asked questions about ensuring the SCE devices were properly calibrated.]
Scott Kubly: The website will have that information, when the SCE devices were last calibrated.

Alderman John Pope, 10th Ward – not on the committee

JP: What are the camera acquisition and maintenance costs?
GK: No specifics. We don’t want to influence the RFP process.


Alderman James Balcer, 11th Ward

JB: Can you revisit the number of people seriously injured or killed in your testimony? [GK repeats it] Is that nationwide or here? [here]. How many are hit and runs?
GK: 40% for pedestrian. Overall is 27%. Average for this year is 100%. [Read our coverage on hit-and-runs.]

Alderman James Cappleman, 46th Ward

JC: I haven’t received a response to my email about the number of injuries that occurred to children during school hours. I make it a practice 2-3x week to monitor Wilson Avenue when school lets out. Our issue is more gang activity and drug activity. I am pushing, and pushing, and pushing to implement the Safe Passage program to no avail. Is it possible to get me information where injuries occur to children during school hours?
GK: Yes, we can get that to you today.

JC: I’ve been asking a few times for a month. I need that information to make an informed decision. I’m also concerned about the RFP process. My residents are concerned that things will be put in places where there is no incidence of injuries to children.
GK: I will give you the data today, to aldermen.

JC: I need at least 24 hours [to review a revised ordinance; Alderman Cappleman expressed his disappointment that he didn’t receive the revised ordinance until minutes before the hearing began].
GK: I’m sorry about that but I think there was some last minute back and forth but I think it made it better. There’s more and more data out there that references the connection traffic crime and street crime. I wasn’t planning on talking about this but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is pushing this kind of research.

Alderman Richard Mell, 33rd Ward

RM: Some of my constituents think this is for financial reasons. “I ran a red light at Diversey California and I’ve never run it again since I got the ticket”. I think some of our neighborhoods really need some change. I think the SCE is a good way to get their attention, in their pockets.

Alderman Howard Brookins, 21st Ward

HB: How will this affect travel time in the area?
GK: In terms of education, one of the myths that we want to dispel, there’s a connection between how fast you are going, and the time it takes you to get to your destination. The faster you go, the more likely you’ll have a crash (which stops traffic). The signals are timed for the speed limit, so people would get to their destination faster. Crashes in Chicago cost $4.1 billion per year. $1,500 per resident. How is that possible? Property damage, EMS, hospital, insurance, lost productivity. Every fatality costs $4m. It’s fiscally irresponsible to not work on this problem and cut down on this problem.

HB: Do we know where the pedestrians were when they had a crash?
GK: I look at almost all the pedestrian crash reports. Generally the police can tell what angle the crash happened, speed, alcohol, whether or not in crosswalk. And if police are not witnesses, they have to deduce this information.

HB: What do you intend to do about the other contribution causes to accidents? Distracted pedestrians, pedestrians crossing against the light, and bicyclists who [unintelligible].
GK: If you just have education and engineering and no enforcement, the other two aren’t [as valuable]. We’re going to educate cyclists and pedestrians. It’s not the driver’s fault when they hit a pedestrian who’s flagrantly crossing the street outside of a crosswalk.

Alderman Carrie Austin, 34th Ward – not on the committee

CA: Improving the striping [part of the toolbox]. Will that consist of existing speed humps? Are you going to restripe those?
GK: Yes. We’ve about 10,000 speed humps in (6k in streets, 4k in alleys) since 2005 (we didn’t have good data before that). We want to build a toolbox that’s more robust so we don’t just rely on speed humps.

Austin: On top of that precaution (speed humps), you want to put another precaution?
GK: My guess is that if we already have a precaution is that the data will show we don’t need another precaution.

Austin: “If there was any SCE proposal for within the community [she means within neighborhoods, not on arterial streets], I would be extremely objecting. The locations I gave you are where it makes sense for SCE: 117th, 119th, and Wentworth” [she calls these “main thoroughfares”].

Alderman Brendan Reilly, 42nd Ward – not on the committee

BR: How many of these crashes involve a speeding vehicle?
GK: We have data on that, but police can’t always tell if speeding was the case.

R: I’d also like to know how many child pedestrian crashes. How are we treating state routes, like Lake Shore Drive?
GK: Lake Shore Drive is excluded [along with the expressways, by state statute].

Alderman Leslie Hairston, 5th Ward – not on the committee

LH: How does this ordinance affect children’s safety at home before curfew? You can say it’s not about kids, but you keep saying it is.


Alderman Edward Burke, 14th Ward – not on the committee

EB: I look at this as an additional means of enforcement, but I’m also interest in how this technology can be expanded to help law enforcement. For example, could it be used in an Amber Alert situation when the abductor’s license plate is known?
GK: Yes, we wrote that into the RFP.

EB: The SCE is not just for speeders. Is there any way for these cameras to identify a license plate of registered sex offenders? Same with gun law offenders. Can this info be transmitted to the 911 center? Can those persons be identified when they enter a school or park zone?
GK: I believe that is possible.

EB: Can the cameras be used to enforce uninsured motorists?
GK: All of this can be done. But that may be a legal question [as in, does the state statute governing SCE allow the cameras to be used to enforce anything but speed?].
EB: The potential for all these things seems to be there. I’d like you to come back and say what the capacity is. I think we should all be considering that.

Alderman Leslie Hairston, 5th Ward – not on the committee

LH: 90% of my ward, including my house, is in a safety zone. I can get rid of my alarm system, but I don’t want you in my bedroom.

Alderman John Arena, 45th Ward – not on the committee

JA: My concern is about implementation. There’s a surveillance component. This is recording video 24/7, holding it for 30 days. That makes me uncomfortable. How are they aimed, monitored? What’s the oversight? What’s the ethical code?
GK: The video is never access unless there’s a citation, or police are conducting an investigation. There are cameras everywhere. We are completely under surveillance. Satellites can see a penny on the ground.
JA: Just because we’re statistically the second most surveilled city [I believe London is the first], doesn’t mean we add to that. I want to see the code. There’s an issue with speeding. This should be a holistic approach. I want to invest in the cheaper and rational measures first.

Read part 2 of 3 of the speed camera hearing.

9 thoughts on “Speed cameras: Aldermen express their concerns at hearing (part 3 of 3)”

  1. This is awesome — thanks so much for doing this.  Just a small correction, Mary O’Connor is the alderman of the 41st ward (Patrick O’Connor is the 40th).

    I’m really worried about these cameras.  I’m the anxious, defensive driver that people get mad at most of the time — other drivers tailgate and pass me in intersections because they want to go much faster than I do.  But I have still slipped to 6 above in the city, usually on those stretches where the speed limit is 25 or 30, but there are no pedestrians, and everyone is driving at least five miles over.  I catch myself and slow down, but the thought of that costing $50 is scary. The majority of drivers at least occasionally drive 6 over in some places.  Either everyone is going to owe hundreds of dollars, or everyone is going to start driving much slower.  I’d actually appreciate it if I didn’t get tailgated and passed constantly while going to speed limit, but I’m so broke that the thought of pricey tickets scares me more.  It’s like the red light cameras — I’ve only run a red once that I can remember, but ever since the installation I’m so nervous at intersections.  I’ve made some stupid sudden stops because I couldn’t decide what to do.

  2. First class reporting! It appears there were more alderman from outside the committee at the hearing than committee members. Any parliamentarians out there know if this effects the way you make a quorum?

  3. I found the question about “how would this affect travel time?” rather ironic.  I’ve often found that, due to stoplight timing, driving at the speed limit often results in reaching more intersections on the green light.  On a bike, I’ve noticed a similar effect when riding 12-15 mph on a 30 mph street.  If I go faster, it has to be a LOT faster to encounter the same timing – close to the speed limit – which may not be safe on a congested street.  

    To give a more specific example from a trip I’ve taken many times, on streets like North Clark, which and have many stoplights and stop signs are often congested, my total trip time at speeds around 12-15 mph is not significantly different than my trip time over the same distance (say 5-10 mi) at 14-18 mph.  The trip might take a minute or two longer at the slower speed – that’s all.  Note that I am stopping at all red lights and slowing or stopping at stop signs (depending on whether or not there is cross traffic).  On these trips, I’ve often had other cyclists pass me when they chose to run red lights or not slow down at stop signs.  Quite often, I catch up to them at the next red light,  where there is enough cross traffic to force a stop.

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