Mayor Rahm Emanuel is asking state lawmakers to allow Chicago to use red-light cameras to automatically ticket drivers who speed through school safety zones.
The administration says it’s about public safety, but skeptics note violators would pay fines of up to $100 at a time when City Hall is facing major budget problems.
“I think it’s piling on. It’s really kind of draconian,” said Ald. Joe Moore, 49th. “The jury is still out on whether the red-light cameras are effective in terms of safety. . . . So then it really becomes a revenue raising tool, rather than a public safety tool, and I think there are more honest ways of raising money.”
The change is being pushed by Gabe Klein, Emanuel’s transportation commissioner, though the idea surfaced at the City Council a few years ago.
Klein held the same job in Washington, D.C., where speeding cameras were used. Chicago owns its red-light camera system and the devices are capable of detecting the speed of vehicles, Klein said.
“We have the ability to do what we want with it and contract with who we want,” Klein said.
All Chicago would have to do is install an additional strip on the ground to calibrate a vehicle’s exact speed. That will give the city an accurate reading that can hold up in court, Klein said.
“The idea is not to begin writing a lot of tickets. It’s about getting people to slow down. It’s about changing behavior,” Klein said. “Having an expectation that police can handle this on their own is unrealistic.”
The proposal surfaced Wednesday in the form of legislation introduced by Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago.
The change is aimed at those driving over the speed limit in so-called “safety zones” — areas designated as roadways near property owned by a park district, school or a private or public college or university.
Signs would have to be posted letting drivers know their speed is being monitored.
Emanuel’s administration already gathered background information to bolster its case for the cameras, saying the No. 1 cause of Chicago pedestrian crashes is failure to yield by motorists.
The chance of a pedestrian fatality increases nine times when vehicles are traveling 10 mph over the 20-mph speed limit in school zones, according to the administration.
Mayor Richard Daley installed red-light cameras in late 2003. Billed as a public safety measure, they quickly became a cash cow. Red-light camera fines were worth nearly $45 million to the city as of 2008. About 790,000 drivers got red light tickets in 2009.
Aldermen eventually acknowledged the cameras were a way to raise revenue during tough financial times.
Ald. Edward Burke wondered whether the public safety deterrent aspect of the red-light cameras was “a myth.”
“It's a money machine, that's all. Period,” said Burke, 14th, in March 2010.
Two years earlier, Burke was among a pair of aldermen who called for using the cameras to crack down on speeders on city streets.
Burke introduced a resolution urging state lawmakers to lift a prohibition that bars municipalities from using cameras for speed enforcement.
Daley backed that resolution in 2008, and now Emanuel is asking Springfield to make it law.
Klein said he’s not sure yet how many cameras would be geared toward catching speeders or how much revenue might be generated.
He stressed that the money raised would go toward transportation safety and infrastructure projects.
The transportation commissioner said he has been focused on traffic safety since he took over in May.
“Sure, the timing may be unfortunate that the bill got posted today. It has nothing to do with the budget,” Klein said. “I’d be happy if there were no revenues, but people don’t respond if there’s no penalty.”
It’s unclear what type of reception the proposal will receive in Springfield. Last year, lawmakers passed a watered-down reform package aimed at making it easier to appeal tickets from red-light cameras after receiving numerous complaints about the devices.
“The idea was to respond to a request (from the city) and see what sort of discussion there is,” said Madigan spokesman Steve Brown.
If it passes and is signed into law, the measure would take effect July 1.
Tribune reporter Hal Dardick contributed.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun