Mayor Rahm Emanuel was frustrated that doubters of his controversial speed-camera plan were ignoring a city study he said offered compelling proof of the life-saving impact of camera technology.
That study, the mayor said in an interview last month, found that traffic deaths in Chicago had plummeted 60 percent near red-light cameras, cousins of the speed-detecting devices.
"You guys have continued to repeat wrong information because it doesn't fit your storyline," Emanuel argued, thrusting it at a Tribune reporter with this challenge:
"If the report is wrong, you should go analyze that report."
As Emanuel prepares to introduce his speed-camera ordinance to the City Council on Wednesday, the Tribune has, indeed, analyzed that report. The findings raise further questions about how the Emanuel administration has brandished statistics to justify the push.
The mayor's report amounted to little more than a claim that traffic deaths declined significantly in areas where red-light cameras were installed over a three-year period. But the administration refused to provide any of the underlying research to verify their numbers, claiming it was confidential.
When the administration's numbers expert finally sat down with the Tribune after weeks of requests, he acknowledged the claimed reduction in fatalities was based only on an informal analysis of traffic statistics.
"Study is a bit of a term of art," Scott Kubly, managing deputy commissioner in the Chicago Department of Transportation, said earlier this month.
"We had many meetings to discuss the best and most fair way to gauge the effectiveness," Kubly said, including a "judgment call" to count fatalities as far away as a quarter-mile from red-light cameras. He declined to say who was involved in the meetings. Asked who he meant by "we," he said he meant "the royal we."
Denied the city's research, the Tribune performed its own analysis using city traffic data provided to the federal government and came to a very different and less dramatic conclusion.
Instead of the 60 percent reduction the mayor touted, the Tribune's analysis of accidents for the same locations revealed a nearly 26 percent reduction — one that mirrored a broader accident trend in the city and across the nation. The difference? The city said fatalities dropped from 53 to 21 in the targeted zones, but the federal statistics showed the before-and-after numbers were 47 and 35.
Presented with that conclusion, the Emanuel administration this week reversed course and said its initial statistical summary was error-ridden and shouldn't have been provided in the first place.
The mayor "inadvertently handed out a working document showing a set of incorrect numbers," Kubly said Monday. "I think it was an honest mistake."
The confusion fits into a pattern of inaccurate claims that Emanuel and surrogates have relied on to sell the mayor's plan to make Chicago the nation's capital of speed cameras. At the mayor's urging, Springfield lawmakers hustled approval for city cameras with little deliberation last fall.
Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, echoing "talking points" prepared for mayoral surrogates, declared to state lawmakers that the rate of pedestrian fatalities in the city was far higher than in New York, where he had once worked.
In fact, the opposite is true, according to a study released by the city in August, which concluded that "relatively speaking, Chicago has a safe pedestrian environment given the volume of traffic."
Emanuel also sought to connect the tragic October death of a 6-year-old girl to the need for cameras, even though the youngster died while crossing a street at a time when cameras would not be allowed to operate under the mayor's program.
The mayor's effort also has support from the Traffic Safety Coalition, a pro-camera group run by close Emanuel political ally Greg Goldner and funded by Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., the Australian-owned red-light camera vendor for the city, the Tribune disclosed Tuesday.
Emanuel didn't answer questions about his ties to Goldner at a news conference Tuesday, asserting that his goal was saving children and that the process of selecting a speed-camera company would be "very open, transparent, very competitive."
At the same time, Emanuel aides were pitching his plan to wary aldermen with a radically overhauled version of their safety statistics that now focuses on only on pedestrian deaths and excludes those involving drivers and passengers.
The revised version counted only pedestrian deaths near the same 107 red-light cameras cited in the mayor's flawed original claim. It came to a remarkably similar conclusion: Pedestrian deaths dropped roughly 58 percent.
In 2004 and 2005, the two years before the camera installations began, 26 pedestrians died within those same quarter-mile zones, the city says. By 2009 and 2010, the total of pedestrian deaths declined to 11.
What the revamped data don't show is that pedestrian deaths are down significantly across the city in recent years, whether or not cameras are near.
Citywide, pedestrian deaths declined 46 percent over the same time frame studied by the administration, according to a Tribune analysis of federal traffic data. Statistically, the difference between the two numbers is small.
Traffic deaths have been steadily dropping across the nation for years, with the rate of deaths per miles driven at levels not seen since 1949. Experts say there are many reasons, including better built vehicles, better built roads and high gas prices that deter driving.
Camera advocates insist the devices make streets even safer, but critics contend that the industry tries to take credit for broader safety trends that have nothing to do with cameras.
A wide body of research shows that speeding is a significant factor in traffic accidents, and the faster a vehicle goes, the more severe is the damage it can inflict.
In making its case for speed cameras, however, the administration has produced little evidence that the devices are an effective remedy for dealing with the narrowly defined mission set by the mayor: protecting children on foot. What's more, most statistics touted by the city deal with red-light cameras, not speed cameras.
Red-light cameras are geared specifically to combat red-light running at intersections. By measuring deaths that occurred blocks away from those fixed points, Kubly, the city's traffic expert, said the city was demonstrating a "halo effect" of cameras — the debated notion that their presence instills care in drivers far from monitored intersections.
Aldermen briefed by the mayor's aides expressed their own doubts after presentations they said focused heavily on where the cameras would go and how they may operate.
The aides said speed cameras are the solution to reducing pedestrian fatalities, but they "haven't shown me the equation you use to get to that answer," said Ald. John Arena, 45th.
"There are quite a bit of unknowns in this, which leaves me a bit unsettled," Arena said. "We have a lot of homework to do, and the data hasn't been shared."
Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, complained the city provided only a "pat statement" about the reduction in fatalities.
"I'm confused as to why they are taking this policy approach," he said. "Without data supporting it, it falls flat. It makes it harder for us to look at it and say there's a good reason for doing it."
Tribune reporters Kristen Mack, Hal Dardick and John Byrne contributed.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun