What speed camera legislation means for Chicago (updated)

See all of our speed camera coverage

Governor Quinn signed legislation, public act SB965, on Monday morning to allow any municipality in Illinois with greater than 1 million inhabitants to construct and operate an “automated speed enforcement system”. There’s already a lot of misinformation and I intend to correct the record. I also present information gathered from multiple research studies on the impacts of speed cameras.


A car crash on North Avenue at Kedzie Avenue, in the new safety zone around Humboldt Park. There’s not a red light camera here but there could be a speed camera in the near future. From 2005-2010, there have been 22 injuries to pedestrians and pedalcyclists at this intersection, inflicted in automobile crashes.

The law is an amendment to the red light camera law. It is not the first time speed cameras have been allowed in Illinois. In 2004, Illinois passed the Automated Traffic Control Systems in Highway Construction or Maintenance Zones Act (view it), enabling speed cameras to be used in work zones on highways. The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and the Illinois State Police (ISP) quickly deployed mobile speed camera vans – I discuss the study of this pilot project in the section, “Do they really make a difference?”.

What is a speed enforcement system?

A speed enforcement system uses fixed and mobile cameras to detect the speed of motor vehicles – most use RADAR – and then issues a citation. The citation is issued to the registered owner of the vehicle and not the person driving it at the time. The owner will have an opportunity to prove that they were not driving the car at the time. The citation is not a moving violation, so therefore would not count against a driver when it comes to calculating insurance, or a possible license suspension.

Where will this system go?

Cameras can only be used in “safety zones”, which are buffers (1/8th mile wide, or 660 feet) around schools and parks. The area starts at the property line of any public or private elementary or secondary school or at the property line of school district land or building that is used for educational purposes (and excludes headquarters and administration buildings). For parks, it starts at the property line of any land or building used for recreation owned by the Chicago Park District. In addition, if any portion of a roadway falls in this buffer, then the entire roadway, up to the far end of the nearest intersections, is included in the safety zone. No part of Lake Shore Drive, Dan Ryan, Kennedy, or Eisenhower expressways, or the Skyway, are included in a safety zone.

When will the system be operational?

There are two answers: A speed camera enforcement system cannot turn on until July 1, 2012. Signage indicating that a particular camera will enforce speed must be posted on the roadway at least 30 days before it starts issuing citations. The signage must also indicate the speed limit; a list of the speed camera locations must be posted online (the city already lists the red light cameras on its website).

The speed cameras in safety zones around schools can only operate on school days, beginning no earlier than 6 AM, and ending no later than 10 PM. The speed cameras in safety zones around parks and park district facilities can operate any day, but only on days the park or facility is open, beginning no earlier than one hour before it opens (parks open at 6 AM; facility hours vary) and one hour after it closes (parks close at 11 PM; facility hours vary).

What are the fines like?

Fines are $50 if you speed 6 to 10 MPH over the speed limit (which is 20 MPH on many streets around schools at certain times of day), and $100 if you speed 11 or more MPH over the speed limit.

The speed limit in Chicago is 30 MPH unless otherwise noted. There are many streets that have 25 MPH speed limits (much of Milwaukee Avenue is this speed, but not all parts of Milwaukee Avenue are in a safety zone) and at least one street has a 20 MPH segment: Dearborn Street starting at Hubbard Street (but only parts of Dearborn Street near Chicago Avenue are in a safety zone). I must note that the design of a street will have more influence over the practiced driving speed than any sign or law regarding speed – Bike Walk Lincoln Park discussed this. If you want to slow traffic, narrow the road and make it run in two directions. Dearborn Street is three lanes, all going northbound.


If there was a speed camera on Dearborn Street north of Hubbard Street, the camera would probably issue citations to 100% of automobile drivers.

How will the incoming revenue be spent?

The legislation requires that it only be spent on the following uses:

  1. “public safety initiatives to ensure safe passage around schools, and to provide police protection and surveillance around schools and parks”
  2. “initiatives to improve pedestrian and traffic safety”
  3. “construction and maintenance of infrastructure within the municipality, including but not limited to roads and bridges”

The third is the least restrictive directive, essentially saying money could be spent on sewers or sidewalk benches, and other things not related to constructing a safe walking environment.

I asked a spokesperson in the mayor’s office to respond to this, but she replied saying that the information on how the City intended to spend the money was not available because it was just signed into law (at the State level), adding, “Safety is our primary concern and all we are asking people to do is obey the law. Ideally, we would not have to issue a single ticket, and kids would be safe going to and from school”.

This is important, because speed correlates with the survival rate of a pedestrian involved in an automobile crash. If a pedestrian is hit by a person driving a car at 30 MPH, there is an 80% survival rate (according to New York City crash data; New York City has a lower crash, injury, and fatality rate than Chicago). If a pedestrian is hit by a person driving a car at 40 MPH (10 more miles per hour, or a 33% increase in speed), there is a 30% survival rate (or an increase of 250% in the fatality rate). Read more about this simple fact of physics.

I asked Alderman Moreno about this topic over Twitter, to which he publicly replied: “@stevevance if it is proven to me that it increases safety for our children then I will support it. If not, I will not.”

Do they really make a difference?

There have been reductions in the number of people speeding, and the number of injuries and fatalities, in locations where speed cameras are installed and operated. In my assessment of multiple studies, it seems that speed cameras are a main cause of these reductions. The effect varies in each region studied, though.

A Tribune analysis of federal data on crashes showed that Emanuel’s proposal would have a limited impact on reducing fatalities. Of the 251 pedestrian deaths in the city between 2005 and 2009, fewer than half occurred in the “safety zones” and less than one-quarter of those involved speeding. Chicago Tribune

I have not repeated this research, but I do have the data available to me (which I can pass along to interested readers). The Chicago Tribune eventually came out in support of speed cameras. I think their study discounts the focus on reducing injuries as well as fatalities.

I looked for academic and empirical research on this topic. I found a lot of information about red light cameras at intersections, but very little about speed cameras. Two of the studies I found were inaccessible to me because I didn’t have the right credentials, or $25, to download them.*

Study 1 – Illinois highway work zones pilot project

Speed camera enforcement was tested on I-64 in 2006, and I-55 in 2007. The article about the study is very easy to read. It opens succinctly describing the problem, that the percentage of work zone-related fatalities in Illinois is higher than the national average and that speeding is a major contributor to the frequency and severity of crashes in the work zone. The study looked at the effects of speed camera enforcement on reducing speeds in work zones “and compared the results with those of traditional enforcement approaches, such as police presence with and without patrol lights, speed display trailer, and a combination of police presence and a speed display trailer”. The study concluded that speed camera enforcement influenced drivers to reduce their speed. The percentage of speeding drivers, in one observed scenario, reduced from 93 percent to 45 percent. It does not seem the study looked at the levels of injuries or fatalities. Read the Illinois study

Study 2 – Royal Automobile Club (RAC) Foundation in the UK, conducted by University College London

This study (RAC) was based heavily on a four-year evaluation report of speed cameras around the UK and concluded that “speed cameras create a substantial improvement in compliance with speed limits and states that collisions and casualties decreased substantially at the more than 4,000 sites covered by the four-year evaluation”. It did not say that the speed cameras caused the decrease in crashes and injuries by acknowledging: “[It] is uncertain as to how much of the casualty [injuries + fatalities] reduction at camera sites was due to the cameras”.

The study was refuted by the Association of British Drivers (ABD) in their review of it. They pointed out the flaws in the RAC study and suggested ways a study of speed enforcement cameras could be better. But the ABD is not doubting that speed cameras have an effect on lowering practiced speeds. Read an evaluation of these two positions on the topic in Traffic Technology International, pages 16-22.

Additional studies

Washington, D.C. – “Enforcement zones were selected by the police department based on incidence of speeding-related fatalities, their proximity to school zones and other places where children are present, and known sites of chronic speeding”. The sites were compared to equivalent sites in nearby Baltimore, Maryland, which did not have speed cameras anywhere. One of the results of the study: “The proportion of vehicles at Washington sites exceeding the speed limit by more than 10 MPH declined by a statistically significant 82 precent compared with the Baltimore sites”.

England, Wales, Scotland – “In the first two years of operations, the following results have been achieved: (1) Speed is down. Based on a large number of speed surveys vehicle speeds have dropped following the introduction of both fixed site and mobile speed cameras. The reduction in speed has been greatest in urban areas. (2) Casualties are down. Where cameras were introduced, there has been a statistically significant reduction in casualties. The greatest reduction has been in killed and serious casualties. ”

Norway – “The results of a before-and-after study of the effects of automatic speed enforcement on accidents are reported in this paper. A statistically significant reduction of 20 percent in the number of injury accidents was found. The number of property-damage-only accidents was reduced by 12 percent.” Download the study.

It appears that most studies conclude that speed camera enforcement reduces the frequency of speeding and the “speed limit overage” (the amount the speed limit is exceeded). They then reference other research that shows lower speed driving reduces the frequency and severity of automobile crashes.

The legislation requires that an evaluation of the Chicago speed camera enforcement system be conducted “within a reasonable period following the installation of the automated traffic law enforcement system”. It will be up to residents and aldermen to hold the city accountable to this provision.

Who else uses speed cameras?

Speed camera enforcement is used in 93 communities in 2011, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). They are used, or have been used, in San Jose and National City, California; Prince George’s County, Maryland; Montgomery, Alabama; Washington, D.C.; and Renton and Lake Forest Park, Washington. People prefer speed cameras first in school zones, and next in work zones. “What might surprise people is that four out of every five people killed in workzones [sic] are drivers or vehicle occupants – not workers. Cameras are helping to protect drivers from themselves.” That’s Sherri Teille, vice president of marketing at American Traffic Solutions, speaking in the Traffic Technology International article.

Speed camera enforcement systems are used internationally: In Norway since 1988, in the UK since the 1980s, and Australia since the 1980s, among other places.

What will happen next?

The Expired Meter reports that, based on data provided by the Chicago Department of Transportation, 79 of the city’s 189 red light cameras are in safety zones. These cameras can be easily upgraded to monitor vehicle speeds and issue citations. The city will also be able to install any additional fixed and mobile speed cameras around the city in one of the 717 safety zones. The number of safety zones comes from data analyzed by an unknown commenter on The Expired Commenter that I haven’t yet verified for correctness (view their map here). In my short review of the data, it is missing a key piece of information: the park, park district facility, or school that the safety zone surrounds.

The City Council may consider this issue next Wednesday, February 15, 2012. I’m not aware of an ordinance or any other materials, including proposals, for aldermen to review.

Who will operate the cameras?

There are several companies. Redflex Traffic Systems already operates the city’s red light cameras. Redspeed is located in Illinois and operates many nearby communities’ red light camera systems (remember that only cities with more than 1 million residents can operate a speed camera enforcement system – only Chicago meets that).

Concerns about the system

Other options – Infrastructure redesign

Are there other ways speeding can be reduced? There are! We can use infrastructural traffic calming devices: speed humps, raised crosswalks, narrowed roadways, curb extensions, etc.

“Before pursuing a camera system contract, local governments should heed the advice of the Federal Highway Administration and first investigate traffic engineering solutions for problem intersections or roadways. If officials decide that private enforcement systems are appropriate, they should avoid deals that constrain future decisions related to protecting safety. Privatized traffic law enforcement should be used solely as a tool for enhancing traffic safety—not as a cash cow for municipalities or private firms.” – U.S. PIRG report on privatizing traffic law enforcement

While the Chicago Department of Transportation has completed projects including traffic calming elements, I don’t believe they appear systematically, or as part of a holistic and geographically broad effort to redesign our street network to better match the City’s stated goals of reducing crashes and injuries.

Other options – Hire people to do this job

Hiring people to enforce traffic laws should be considered. However, it seems to have already been considered and rejected. A commenter in the Second City Cop blog mentioned that the speeding enforcement efforts of the Chicago Police Department were abandoned:

The Traffic Section’s roving unit of LIDAR cars, which were implemented in 2006 to curtail speeding and directly respond to citizen and district commanders’ requests, was disbanded as of today [January 8, 2012]. The reason? Lack of personnel. They started out with 25 officers and 3 sergeants and ended 2011 with only 8 POs and 1 sgt. No more speed missions in the districts. The only place traffic officers will be running RADAR or LIDAR now is on Lake Shore Dr and the Skyway. The districts will be on their own for traffic enforcement from now on. But don’t worry. Crime is down and we’re fully staffed.


The cameras are able to record video. This is Chicago, the land of 1,001 cameras in the Loop, and hundreds more at CTA stations and at intersections; many are privately owned and linked to a City and FBI facility. Additionally, camera operators have access to the Secretary of State’s Office database of licensed drivers, as well as the databases in Departments of Motor Vehicles in other states. How well do these offices, and the camera operators, protect this information?

But the electronic control of vehicles is where we’re heading, one where a #robotcar means that a robot is actually driving and not a poorly educated, wrongly driving person. As one of my friends put it, “driving however you want may be freedom for the driver, but it collectively puts us all at risk“. The economic and safety benefits of a speed camera enforcement system may outweigh the privacy implications: benefits realized in costs not spent on injuries and crashes, and how those who speed will be funding safety infrastructure upgrades (assuming that speed camera revenues don’t become a “slush fund” like TIF money has been).

“Greed cameras” – revenue grab

The legislation attempts to prevent this by barring tying operation compensation to system performance. The operator cannot receive compensation for operating the system based on the amount of revenue generated or citations issued. This may discourage many of the practices the U.S. PIRG report discusses that favor the operator and not the city or its citizens.

I think Mayor Emanuel’s intentions are in the right place. I believe that speed cameras in Chicago will be able to reduce injuries and crashes near where they are located. In my conversations and interview with transportation commissioner Gabe Klein (for a different article), I believe that the two want to increase safety in Chicago. In every thing they’ve done so far, I believe that this effort will have the highest effect.

Discussions on the web

These are discussions I’m participating in. Have you seen others?

*This is a major criticism I have of academic and empirical research: Politicians, citizens, transportation planners, etc. should be basing policy decisions on the best known information, on best practices. But the information, the research, often funded by taxpayers, is locked up and only available to those at universities or with expensive subscriptions.

Photo by Katherine of ChicagoUpdated February 9, 2012, to add links to other discussions around the web (scroll to the end). Also read my companion post, Police traffic enforcement is not a recoupable cost

47 thoughts on “What speed camera legislation means for Chicago (updated)”

    1. Thank you. Your website has been very helpful in shaping this article and finding information. 

      According to a commenter above, there’s a red light at North and Kedzie, but it’s not reflected in either the full list of red light cameras on the city’s website, nor in the list posted on your site. 

  1. I agree that street design is likely to have a better effect on speeds than this effort, although I will appreciate in some locations near parks and schools where I currently have problems with speeding drivers, such as Longwood Drive by my neighborhood park. Under current conditions, it’s often difficult to cross the street there, because very few drivers will yield to peds. 

    Dearborn is 20 mph north of Hubbard?  Never would have guessed it.  When riding there, I’m too busy watching out for speeding drivers, reckless drivers and potential doorings.  I’ve passed there hundreds of times and never seen that sign.

    1. Re: Dearborn – I featured Dearborn in my blog (link below) as the poster child of a mismatch between the design of a street “telling” the driver how fast to go v. the actual posted speed limit. Hopefully many of our streets will get design changes that will have an enormous effect on the speed of motorized traffic. In the mean time, speed cameras will help slow drivers down as well.

      1. I’ve updated the article to include a link to your post. I remember reading it now. I wonder if there’s a more technical or industry name for that kind of mismatch, maybe “design speed disparity”?

  2. Can you describe or illustrate this: “In addition, if any portion of a roadway falls in this buffer, then the entire roadway, up to the far end of the nearest intersections, is included in the safety zone.”?

    If it is how I am picturing it in my mind, then the map which you linked to from a commenter on The Expired Meter is a rough approximation, a very nice start for picturing the city’s safety zones. The actual streets covered, I think, would start from the bubble around schools and parks and the area would extend along roadways to the ends of blocks past the bubble.

    I’ve grabbed a screenshot from the map and overlaid a layer to illustrate my thinking. I chose a simple region, Maple Park, to avoid dealing with overlapping bubbles for this example.

    I believe I heard on the radio yesterday an estimation that half of Chicago’s road miles could be included.

    1. That’s exactly how I understand the legislation:
      “However, if any portion of a roadway is within either one-eighth mile radius,
      the safety zone also shall include the roadway extended to the furthest portion of the next furthest intersection.”

      I see in that image that Palmer Square Park is not completely enveloped in a safety zone, as it should be.

  3. Great piece Steve. I still do not support this plan as I’d much rather have officers handle this task. When drivers are pulled over for reckless driving/high speeds officers often find other much more serious infractions that can get those drivers off the road. With these cameras, the tickets won’t even count as moving violations. It only impacts people financially, doesn’t stop them from driving recklessly at all.

    And just a correction, there is a red light camera at North and Kedzie. It’s on the south west side of the road and frequently nabs left turn runners there.

  4. Nice work gathering all the info. It’s exciting to hear these will be installed, it’s just too bad they won’t be there when I visit in May.

    There’s been a lot of success around where I live with red light cameras. I really wish we’d get speed cameras installed too.

    1. The impacts of red light cameras is highly debatable. There’s a lot of research that have competing conclusions. Some research has found that while a certain type of crash has been reduced, another type of crash has been increased. I specifically did not look at a red light camera research for this article. 

      The interesting thing about the red light cameras is that their software can change (the cameras might already have the software) to start issuing citations for speeding. 

    1. No, I don’t. I haven’t been a student there since May 2010. Usually when I need a journal article (or in this case something from the Transportation Research Board), I ask a current student for the information. But I wrote this piece from 11 AM to 4 AM – no one was up 😉

  5. I don’t think that speed humps should be considered for speed reduction. City driving is already inefficient enough with all the additional slowing before and accelerating after the humps. It also causes unnecessary wear on the cars.

    1. I really don’t like speed humps either. And I never should have mentioned them, but I included them because that’s what the City considers traffic calming and people ask for them by name. If you want slower cars, ask for a comprehensive treatment, not speed humps. They’re not even bike friendly so they’re quite uncomfortable. There also doesn’t seem to be consistency in their design and application. The road pavement immediately following a speed hump in some places has TONS of scrapes from the metal parts of cars while other road pavements have none. 

      1. I am not a fan of speed humps as currently implemented by CDOT.  They’ve ruined some formerly wonderful bike routes, like Glenwood through Lakewood-Balmoral, portions of Wrightwood west of Logan Square and many others.  I have to deal with a bunch of speed humps on a street here in Beverly that happens to be my best route to/from the grocery store.  Pulling 30-50 lbs behind the bike over speed humps really makes me hate them.  I’d rather see more comprenhsive street treatments using other traffic calming methods.

        I have seen some speed humps in other municipalities that are of a more bike friendly design that is also less damaging to cars.   The only way I’d like them in Chicago is if CDOT uses a better design (as in those other municipalities) and follows it consistently.

  6. another solution for reducing traffic and traffic accidents is to improve the public transportation infrastructure

  7. Thanks for this great article. It’s good to see everything laid out clearly, including the data supporting that speed cameras elsewhere have absolutely shown safety improvements for the public. Even the first page of the pay-to-read study reflects that in Victoria, Australia, they found that there was a 30% reduction in traffic fatalities the year after the cameras were installed, and in British Columbia, they posted a 20% reduction. That’s huge. I’m so glad Gov. Quinn signed the bill into law. I like to think my impassioned letter to him on the topic helped him make up his mind. 

  8. Ugh, guess I’ll mark this city off of my list of places to visit.  Oh well, after the $100 fines, at least everyone will feel “safer” than before.  That’s what counts.

  9. This is a great piece.  But, if anyone thinks money is not the motivation, then you are foolish.  Ald Ed Burke is on record as stating that cameras are about money, period.
    This hits poor people the hardest- think of the person who can barely make ends meet, and now has to pony up $100 because they are driving too fast.
    Emmanuel is a crook.  I can only hope that this sparks outrage, and, quite honestly, hope we don’t see a reduction in accidents or fatalities, so this scan can exposed for what it really is.

        1. Did you start reading the study?

          The author has no credentials, no backing, and no one has reviewed his methods for accuracy. There’s a slight credibility problem here. There appears to be a bias in the study which the author doesn’t seem to recognize or admit to. 

          Additionally, the website to which you link has its own credibility problem, not revealing the authors. 

          1. Hi Steve,
            I am Dave Finney and I wrote the report:

            You’re right that I have no backing and do not work in road safety (hence why I can report accurately) but I am an engineer (which I state) from a family of engineers.

            I have genuinely attempted to be as unbiassed as possible and you can always email me if you have any questions, see:

            Please see figure 7.2, why do you think that collisions reduced before the cameras, but not after?

  10. Despite the studies, I don’t agree that cameras are a good solution. There isn’t a single case where an infrastructure redesign wouldn’t work better than speed cameras, and it’s money that is much better spent. What’s worse is that some drivers associate a ‘cool’ factor to getting a ticket, so it doesn’t always work. I know this because I know people who don’t change their behavior, despite getting a ticket.

    Just like the red-light cameras, most of the people complaining about the speed cameras (not critiquing – that’s another group) are exactly the people who regularly and consciously violate the speed limit – and 99% of people who violate the speed limit consciously do it. It wouldn’t affect them if they simply didn’t speed. It’s just that most drivers are under the illusion that speeding will get them to point B faster, even though it really won’t.

    In an urban area, a car is just a faster way to get to the next red light…so why not drive the speed limit and keep that fuel mileage up?

  11. First, I would like to say that I am the creator of the safety-zone map.  Your comment about it not including feature names is spot on.   I made the map just to get an approximation of the coverage.  One is that in making the buffers, I merged overlapping school buffers and similarly merged overlapping park buffers. The result was a smaller count of buffers for loading into google maps.

    Erik’s comment about the safety zones extending to the nearest intersection is also spot on.  I didn’t have an easy way to approximate or to draw it so I was only concerned with making the 660′ buffer and not the extensions.

    Steve, you comented on Erik’s screen shot that a park wasn’t encompassed by a buffer.   This again is due to a limitation of google maps.  I don’t have the resources to make the map as dynamic as it should be.  As a result google limits each page to 20 objects and those do not dynamically refresh as you zoom in.   I recommend downloading the KML for a comprehensive view.   

    Lastly, I’m working on making a new KML that will further shrink the number of buffer zones by merging the schools with the parks.   When complete, I’ll post a direct link to the KML here that can be viewed with google earth (or other similar programs).

    1. Thanks for coming here and commenting. 

      I read about that limitation but I didn’t realize its implications. 

      As for extending to the nearest intersection when a roadway is touched by a safety zone, this is how you could create it:

      1. Select all the line segments that intersect with the buffer. 
      2. Add a column to these line segments, like safetyzone = 1
      3. Style the segments where safetyzone = 1 differently than where it = 0.

      As for showing the new map online, check out http://GeoCommons.com. With that site, you can upload multiple shapefiles and combine them into a single online map. 

      Or, with the resulting KML file, you could upload it to Google Fusion Tables – it would not have the page limitation. 

      And my last suggestion is to use http://shpescape.com/ to upload shapefiles directly into Google Fusion Tables. Thanks for making the map. Even though the Chicago Tribune made maps, I don’t know if they published it in an accessible way.

          1. Try the buffer in QGIS and then upload the resulting shapefiles to GeoCommons. It will then just display them. I’ve actually never used GeoCommons to do analysis. I look forward to the results. 

  12. before the city go about  placing speed cameras around every school, why not check out the areas to see if  they are needed .if the city is concern about saving money, why not do this.

  13. New York City has a lower crash, injury, and fatality rate than Chicago

    From my experiences in both places, my guess would be that traffic congestion in NYC would be a significant factor in this difference.

    1. It is true that New York City has a lower crash, injury, and fatality rate than Chicago. But they have other problems including piss-poor handling of fatal crashes involving pedestrians and bicyclists.
      Traffic congestion often factors into crash rates. We should be mitigating traffic congestion alongside making safety improvements so our buses can run faster and so there’s less pollution from idling.

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