May 7, 2022

The Real Effects of Chicago’s Red-Light and Speed Cameras

By Michael Bednarski, Kyle Lukas and Emely Lobo

Chicago, like many other major cities in America, is notorious for its famous streets and the drivers that inhabit them. Hundreds of thousands of people use these roads in order to commute to work, school, and get around the city on a daily basis.

In order to make the streets a safer space for the community, the city adopted the use of red-light traffic cameras in 2003 and has continued to use them in order to enforce infractions of the law that might not otherwise be noticed by scattered police patrols.

According to researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the initiative has proved to reduce serious and fatal auto accidents by 15%, showing that there is positive change occurring within the city as a result when it comes to the number of accidents. 

While well-intentioned and certainly beneficial in some aspects, data shows that these cameras also have the tendency to discriminate and ticket black and brown drivers at a higher rate than other individuals. Factors such as the placement location of these red-light cameras and the population density of lower-income neighborhoods both contribute to this disparity.

Dr. Nebiyou Tilahun, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago whose research focuses on travel behavior, transport accessibility, and transportation equity, said “there are appropriate cases of use” in regard to red light and speeding cameras.

In March, an Illinois Policy Institute investigation reported that Chicago had collected $89 million worth of speed camera tickets in 2021 alone. While these numbers may demonstrate that the collection of money is working as it is intended to, many of the people who have received these fines are left wondering if their steep fine is actually contributing to making the streets safer? 

The calibration and overall accuracy of the technology that is used in these cameras also have recently come into question by motorists when analyzing these devices, as vehicles that are aiming to avoid collisions and dangerous situations on the road can actually end up being those that are accused of violations.

DePaul University student Patrick Ugolini said he has been issued tickets on more than one occasion due to a fast-changing light that goes from yellow to red in almost an instant. In not wanting to slam on the brakes and risk potentially damaging his own car as well as other possible drivers behind him. 

“I think it comes down to the technology not being smart enough to account for real-world situations,” said Ugolini. “If I have to make a judgment call as to whether I will be ticketed or involved in an accident that could seriously affect my life and others, I would choose the ticket every time.”

The question then must be asked if these fines are meant for another purpose other than just to keep the streets safe? The COVID-19 pandemic and a slew of other factors have left Chicago once again needing to balance the city’s budget. Recently Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that the city also plans on increasing the spending budget by 8.4 % for 2022

Another increase came to the pocketbook of drivers in Chicago in 2021, as it was announced by the city that drivers would now be ticketed for going any more than 6 mph over the speed limit if they were to come in contact with one of these cameras.

When questioned during a 2021 press conference on why the city had decided to take this action, Lightfoot said that the increase in this threshold is “about encouraging safer driving during the pandemic because there were fewer drivers on the streets,” essentially arguing that the drivers who were using the roads regularly were actually speeding more. 

According to a Northwestern University Transportation Center study conducted in 2017, Chicago’s red-light cameras enforcement program delivers significant safety benefits.

With a successful ticketing program in place, questions regarding the possible expansion of both red light and speeding camera programs for the city have risen.

Survey: Your thoughts on the red-light and speed cameras

Tilahun said he believes the use of these cameras and a possible expansion in the future depends entirely on the situation.

Tilahun said that in cases where the cameras are not working “you should also be just as quick to remove them … if you’re charging people, but you’re not getting any safety benefits, definitely, we should remove them.”

He added that even though there were fewer cars on the road in 2021, the number of fatalities from car crashes had gone up significantly. In response to this, he believes that speed cameras are one of the many tools that can be used to help save lives

So how easy can you get a ticket from redlight cameras? City law says that a vehicle “rolling” through the turn can endanger pedestrians and bicyclists who may be legally crossing the street with the green light and/or the “Walk” signal. Red-light cameras typically are there for when a driver passes an active red light, sensors are oftentimes implemented inroads for this to happen. Other cities though have different red light cameras that have their own sensors already installed. 

Incidents like these cause the driver’s license to be taken away or take further action in the consequence caused by street accidents. In Illinois, Traffic ticket convictions can result in the suspension or revocation of your Illinois driver’s license by the Secretary of State. Fines can be up to $120.

Henry Hodge, a senior at the University of Illinois Chicago, said that red-light cameras just add more “stress” to their lives. 

 “I commute about an hour and a half to school and have gotten tickets for accidents that were caused by another driver, I had to pay so far about $200 dollars total worth of tickets,” he said.

UIC student David Montoya said that red-light cameras have “made a dent in my wallet.” 

“I drive to school through the same route and I have been wrongly written a ticket a few times now, each time has been for different reasons but I still have to pay the fines,” he said. “I work part-time and go to school, it just adds more to my plate.”

Read more: Crime

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