Trying to get in the last word about speed cameras, before Wednesday’s vote


Photo of a speed hump in Logan Square from the point of view of someone bicycling by Andrew Ciscel. 

The following is a conversation between co-writer John Greenfield and myself and was derived from an email chain between him and me on Sunday. 

Dear John,

By reading all my articles about speed cameras, you may find yourself confused on my position. I’ve figured it out. I want city council to not pass the ordinance. I think the surveillance and revenue aspects leave too much room for abuse and I believe that we should pursue human-scale strategies to reduce speed and change our culture that accepts speeding and the injuries and fatalities it leads to. -Steven

John replies:

What is the potential for abuse? Is this just anti-Big Brother paranoia? It’s true that the Tribune reported that a longtime Emanuel campaign contributor is a consultant to a traffic camera manufacturer. But I still don’t really see a downside. I’m not concerned about the surveillance aspect.


The cameras can be used for non-speeding and non-traffic related monitoring and crime investigations. (New Scotland Yard admitted that even with the UK’s extensive CCTV coverage, it had little effect on preventing or even solving crimes.) I want the city to implement different strategies, like using more police officers to pull over drivers and issue citations and a lesson on the impact of speed in crashes (which at $200 are a lot more than the $35 or $100 tickets issued by speed cameras).


I suspect that a lot of the opposition to the cameras is coming from people who are afraid they’ll be unfairly ticketed. But the cameras aren’t going to ticket people who don’t speed. They’ll discourage people from speeding and thhey’ll save lives.


I agree that speed cameras will discourage speeding and will save lives (and limbs). But they lack a personal connection that may be key to changing behavior. The speed cameras can’t tell the driver that they were speeding until weeks later when the driver receives a citation. And the opportunity for the driver to associate their speeding with that place – the driver might not speed everywhere, but only in those places where it seems okay, like wide streets – is lost. These moments, when the police pull over speeders, would be a great time for them to become an arm of a major, widespread public education campaign.


They’ll probably pay for themselves (so it’s not like they’re going to take money away from other traffic calming infrastructure or enforcement strategies) and maybe actually raise revenue for the city. It seems like a win-win.


I, too, believe the speed cameras will pay for themselves, and then some. But I’m also concerned that the revenue raised won’t go to the best projects. The state statute governing our speed camera implementation is quite vague. I want more attention paid to the design and engineering of our streets, which fail to discourage speeding because of their widths. Speed camera revenue could help us fix this, as long as the City Council doesn’t direct it to pay for a hole in a bridge far away from the nearest street with a speeding problem.


I really haven’t studied the issue nearly as much as you, and this is basically my knee-jerk reaction. But assuming that the cameras do raise revenue, they’re actually less expensive than other types of traffic calming – they have a negative cost, i.e. a profit.


The profit aspect is a good side effect (as long as the City Council spends it wisely), and as Commissioner Gabe Klein said, ideally the system would generate no profits, meaning no one was speeding (but that probably wouldn’t happen). When it comes down to it, I support the use of speed cameras, but the implementation plan makes me uneasy.

My conclusion

Klein talked about a toolbox, filled with tools and strategies to lower speeding and increase street safety. But the toolbox should be created and implemented regardless of the passing or failure to pass of the “Establishment of Children’s Safety Zones” ordinance.

I am 100% behind Klein when he says, “we have a culture in this country, and in Chicago, that, it’s sort of okay to speed. We all do it a bit. But shoplifting, we don’t have a permissible amount of shoplifting, for instance. I think we have some cultural values that need to change.” (See a video of Klein speaking this; you can see me taking notes at 3:29.)

We disagree a bit, though, when he says: “And I think, no way better [to change cultural values] than with technology when our resources are constrained.” Technology doesn’t have to mean high-tech. There’s plenty of low-tech traffic calming.

Our resources have always been and always will be constrained. We have to find the best ways to deal with that. I believe there are better ways to reduce injuries and fatalities caused by speeding drivers than a surveillance system. Additionally, there is no guarantee to taxpayers and to speed limit violators that the proceeds would go to the best investments (as a community we’d have to figure out what constitutes the “best investment”). The City Council would be in charge of the proceeds and could spend them on a variety of things (allowed by broad definitions in the state statute), not all of which would be investments that further increase safety in our transportation system.

I would like to see changes in the ordinance that eliminate the cameras’ ability to surveil when the speed enforcement time is inactive, and restrict expenditures of speed camera revenue to infrastructure changes that reduce speeding, crashes, and injuries.


Speaking of our culture where it’s okay to speed, Active Transportation Alliance published a video yesterday featuring a staff member measuring the speeds of passing cars on Humboldt Drive at Cortez Drive in Humboldt Park with a radar gun

28 thoughts on “Trying to get in the last word about speed cameras, before Wednesday’s vote”

  1. I, too, believe the speed cameras will pay for themselves, and then some. But I’m also concerned that the revenue raised won’t go to the best projects. The state statute governing our speed camera implementation is quite vague. I want more attention paid to the design and engineering of our streets, which fail to discourage speeding because of their widths. Speed camera revenue could help us fix this, as long as the City Council doesn’t direct it to pay for a hole in a bridge far away from the nearest street with a speeding problem.

    I share your concern, which is why I have mixed feelings about the speed camera idea.  There are locations where I think it could make a positive difference, some of which are spots close to home where I would LOVE to see the chronic speeders (who make it tough for me to cross the street) get tickets.  There are other locations where I think the effect could be marginal.  The potential for abuse of the surveillance aspect exists, along with potential to provide valuable information that could help to solve crimes unrelated to speeding.  (See Prime Suspect – the original British version.)  I think that design changes should be part of the answer.  

    I wish we had enough police to write the tickets that need to be written for speeding and reckless driving, while leaving enough available manpower to deal with the violent crimes, robberies, burglaries and other incidents that happen every day.

  2. If the profits of the system were truly an unintended consequence of a good camera program, I would agree with you that it’s a good thing.  But it’s not.  The revenue is the intended consequence of the system.  Period.

    John, since you’re buying into this, can I interest you in a nice bridge?

    1. If this is in fact a money grab by the mayor that will have the unintended consequence of saving lives and making it safer and more pleasant for me to walk and bike in Chicago, I’m all for it.

  3. I’m with John here. It would be great if any proceeds go towards increasing safety in our transportation systems, but there are plenty of budgetary needs in the city where it would be welcome.

  4. A certain amount of speeding (say, 5 mph over) is tolerated by everyone — it’s the norm among drivers, the police almost never stop anyone for going < 6 miles over (to the point where drivers won't even slow down if they're passing a cop going a few miles over).  Other drivers get mad if you drive the exact speed limit on a road where they can't pass.

    I think if the people in charge were truly concerned about people driving 6 mph over, they would have done something about it by now.  Officials have data showing how everyone actually drives, and it's tolerated through lack of enforcement, so speed limits have become a way to control speed rather than a way to force everyone to drive an exact speed.  Speed limits are implicitly understood by nearly all drivers as a rough limit, not an exact limit, because that is how everyone involved — starting with law enforcement — has treated them forever. 

    Speed cameras would be a major shift in what does and doesn't get penalized.  It would be like if you showed up a few minutes late to a weekly meeting without consequence, and then one week you got a substantial fine for not being there on time.  The sudden implementation of cameras means a lot of people who can't afford it are going to owe a lot of money for doing what they've been doing for years — driving a few mph over, sometimes slipping to 6+ over on those wide stretches where traffic moves fast — without anyone telling them it's a big problem.  It would be like a tax on all drivers except for the minority who never slip to 5+ over the limit

    If officials were interested in getting drivers to slow down, they would have changed enforcement years ago.  And I'm actually sympathetic that maybe we should do something about speeding now — I hate being tailgated and recklessly passed in intersections for being on the slow side —  but the way they are doing this is designed to surprised people with a pile of fines in the mail.  Many drivers will be able to pay the fines (drivers as a group have more income than non-drivers) but the tickets will be a big "oh my god how do we pay for this" moment for others who suddenly owe all this money.  Especially since with the delay, they could end up getting many tickets at once before they even find out.  Any policy to significantly change how people drive should be implemented in a way that starts with education and enforcement by police officers.  Then maybe you put one camera in place and publicize it, and then go from there.  This is just a blatant scheme to tax drivers as much as they can, because they're broke and they can't raise taxes other ways without constituents getting angry.

    1. Implementation won’t be that fast.

      Commissioner Klein estimated that the first speed camera wouldn’t be activated until spring 2013 if the ordinance passes tomorrow. He also said (but I’m not sure if this is in the ordinance) that there would be a 90-day public awareness campaign before the first camera activation. Additionally, at every camera location, there will have to be a sign posted 30 days prior to that camera’s activation.

      1. A campaign and signs definitely helps, and (paranoid, informed) people like me are going to study maps. But I still think a lot of people are going to be surprised.  It takes a lot for something like this to penetrate.  If everyone knew red light camera locations, there would hardly be any tickets.

          1. I don’t think everyone notices and understands the signs every time — otherwise, why would anyone run the lights?  If every driver registered “this intersection has a red light camera, and that means I will owe $100 if I enter the intersection on red” as he or she approached, I don’t think we’d see nearly the number of tickets that actually get sent.

          2. So in other words, cameras would can very effective in reducing bad behavior (?).

          3. I think there could be other factors. There might be people who think, “I can beat the light” or some who say, “I will contest it”.
            Commissioner Klein mentioned at last Wednesday’s hearing that 50% of citations were issued to people outside Chicago.

          4. Maybe the tickets to suburban and out-of-town drivers means a lot of people don’t notice and understand the sign the first time (so they aren’t careful about avoiding tickets) but people who live here learn about the cameras.  Residents are also used to our absurdly short yellow.  I think the speed cameras will be more confusing since they can move around and I don’t think they have to be placed at intersections?  I’m sure many people will avoid them successfully, but my prediction is a lot of people will not realize they’re getting tickets for what they’re doing until the tickets come in the mail.

          5. “I’m sure many people will avoid them successfully, but my prediction is a lot of people will not realize they’re getting tickets for what they’re doing until the tickets come in the mail.”
            That is a common concern.

            You are correct in that they can be placed away from intersections. But even the mobile cameras will have to be signed.

          6. jason — I think the cameras will scare some people into driving more slowly, yes.  I just don’t support the tradeoffs.

    2. It might make sense to program the cameras to allow a 5 MPH “grace” over the posted speed. 30 MPH is the default speed limit in Chicago, and perhaps 35 MPH might be tolerable. But since studies show that 50% of peds hit at 30 MPH are killed and 90% of peds hit at 40 MPH are killed, shouldn’t we at least give peds a 50/50 chance? Certainly anything over 35 is unsafe.

      Part of the problem with speeding in Chicago is that almost nobody knows what the speed limit is – it’s not posted all that regularly. So the speed camera campaign should definitely include installing a lot more speed limit signs.

      1. I thought the cameras already allow a grace period?  Don’t they start ticketing at 6 mph over?

        Anyone who hits a pedestrian is doing worse things than speeding — if most drivers were regularly hitting pedestrians, I’d think even a 50/50 chance of killing them was completely unacceptable.  And really, even hitting someone without killing them is totally unacceptable and deserves to be punished harshly.  But if we set speed limits according to the odds of survival in a collision, we’d drive 20 on every road.

        I’m okay with cameras for 10 miles over — I think anyone driving that fast is being reckless and driving faster than normal traffic.  In areas with a lot of pedestrians, we could set speed limits at 25 and have cameras ticketing anyone driving 35 — that would punish the truly reckless people without surprising people who thought it was 30 and drove 31.

        I agree that there aren’t enough speed limit signs.  If they truly cared about speed, they would install a lot more.  (Just like if they cared
        about collisions in intersections they would make the yellow longer).

  5. I hate to say it, but I hope every alderman who votes for this, as well as gabe, rahm, and all of the cronies in support of it, are hit by a speeding car.  They deserve to understand that this all about money and has nothing to do with safety.

  6. I’m all in favor of safe driving, but I’m curious how a series of 20 mph zones along Peterson is going to play out.  Has anyone tried driving 20 on Peterson?

    1. The speed limit on Peterson will not change. No speed limit is changing. The only reason a speed limit would be 20 MPH on Peterson is if parts of it are in a school zone. These are posted and are in effect when the following two conditions are met: 1) the time is between 7 AM and 4 PM. 2) there is a child present (although the sign says “children”).

  7. I think what bothers me most about the speed cameras are really two things. First, I don’t trust that the city will really funnel the revenues where they say they will. I’d love to see the revenues plowed back into the transportation system itself in the form of complete streets, bicycle and pedestrian amenities, even bus stops and rail stations. What I fear is this will become another revenue stream to shore up the budget. 

    Secondly, and related to the first, is that I would really like to see complete streets types of improvements that, by design, will force cars to slow down, that will provide more room for bikes and pedestrians and less room for cars, that in essence, will reduce auto traffic significantly. 

  8. Steven, what are you smoking?  You want “human scale strategies to reduce speed and change our culture”?  The cameras “lack a personal connection that may be key to changing behavior”?  Jeez, stop whining and grow up.  Take a look at the real world, man.  Cameras save money and will be a deterrent.  The city doesn’t have money to put more police on the streets to write tickets.  Do you read the papers?  Any idea how many violent crimes are happening in Chicago.  Get a grip, man.  Grow up.

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