Chicago’s Speed Cameras Reach an Intersection at City Hall

Emanuel is expected to go to City Hall tomorrow for the final push on speed cameras—armed with data and talking points from a consulting company that shares ties with For a Better Chicago and the speed camera company. Lost in all this has been the legitimate case for the legislation—and how the incidents the city’s used to make its case bring up other critical pedestrian-safety issues.

Chicago crosswalk

 

The speed camera ordinance will likely go to the city council tomorrow; Fran Spielman has a good rundown of how the city plans to roll them out. Which means the Trib picked a good day for this story to drop: ”Mayor’s speed cameras would help political ally: Longtime Emanuel backer consults for firm that stands to make millions from city’s push for traffic devices.”

And not just any ally: Greg Goldner is a former campaign manager to both Daley and Emanuel (in the latter’s 2002 Congressional campaign) and the founder of For a Better Chicago, the PAC that’s supported Emanuel allies in City Council elections. Goldner does consulting for the company that would install the speed cameras; meanwhile, the lawyer who helped set up For a Better Chicago and defended Emanuel in his ballot challenge is a state lobbyist for the speed-camera company. Both deny having talked to Emanuel about the cameras.

It’s a lengthy article and well worth reading in full; the ties go beyond even that brief summary. But here’s the part that struck me (emphasis mine):

Resolute got on board with the mayor’s push after he announced it, Goldner said. The firm said it has since provided the city with data and “talking points” on the issue.

[snip]

Most of the firm’s work on the issue is done through the Traffic Safety Coalition, a group it created with funding from Redflex that seeks to establish support across the country by forging relationships with law enforcement, pedestrian-friendly groups and relatives of pedestrians killed by errant drivers. The coalition pushes for new camera laws, defends against regional uprisings to ban cameras and produces gut-wrenching video testimonials about fatal crashes.

[snip]

Goldner acknowledged last week that the coalition’s strategic model involves an early appearance in markets that interest Redflex, building community support, finding examples of children victimized by errant drivers, videotaping their parents and then asking sympathetic policymakers to file a bill or pass an ordinance in support of automated traffic cameras.

Protecting child pedestrians has been the heart of the city’s argument for speed cameras. But the evidence that speed cameras protect pedestrians from fatal crashes (much less children specifically) is not as strong as the evidence that it reduces injuries and fatalities from all forms of crashes. And in the particular cases the city has highlighted, it seems unlikely that speed cameras would have protected the victims. In the case of Maya Hirsch, who was killed near Lincoln Park Zoo in 2006 by a man who rolled through a stop sign, the Tribune highlighted changes the city made to make the intersection safer, and more pedestrian-safety needs across the city:

One year after the hit-and-run, the T-shape intersection at Lincoln Park West and Belden was reconfigured, city records show. The changes included installation of curb bump-outs that shorten the length of crosswalks and a slightly raised crosswalk area to make the crossing more visible to motorists, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation.

[snip]

Across Chicago, painted crosswalk lines, stop bars at traffic signals and thousands of assorted other markings that have faded or have been worn away by traffic have not been replaced, due in part to budgetary woes. CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein is vowing to catch up on the backlog by spending $2.3 million this year.

In the case of Diamond Robinson, the driver was cited with failing to yield to a pedestrian at a crosswalk going too fast for conditions, and the accident occurred on a weekend, when the speed-camera enforcement would not have been in effect. And the Sun-Times article about her death highlighted potential fixes for the spot where she was killed:

“The girl was laying on the ground and the man who hit her was holding her,” said Tolliver, 23. “Cars come flying down this street doing damn near 50, sometimes 60 miles per hour. There’s accidents all the time at that corner. They need a stop sign there, or at least a speed bump, or something.”

Robinson was killed at 70th and Loomis; Google Street View shows an intersection with minimally marked crosswalks and no stop sign or red light. Perhaps, with speed cameras and the public-education campaign Spielman describes, the driver may have (through general wariness) been driving a sufficient speed for conditions, but it’s not clear speed in excess of the limit played a role.

In my experience, crosswalks have been terribly problematic in Chicago. In 2010, the state actually passed a new law rewording how crosswalks are regulated because the old law was so vague:

The former crosswalk law in Illinois required drivers to yield to pedestrians and stop only when necessary.

Now, drivers must stop for pedestrians in all crosswalks — even those that are unmarked or don’t have a stop sign or a traffic signal. The penalty for failing to stop is a traffic citation of $50 to $500. Fines vary by county.

A year after the law passed, the Daily Herald reviewed its enforcement. They found that it wasn’t being enforced, and that drivers didn’t know about it:

Des Plaines Police Chief James Prandini says it’s tough to justify strict enforcement of a traffic law he believes few drivers know about.

That explains why Des Plaines police officers have yet to issue a moving violation on Illinois’ revamped crosswalk law since it took effect in July 2010.

Des Plaines is not alone. Only one police department in a sampling of seven suburbs within the Daily Herald’s coverage area has reached double digits for tickets issued.

Prandini argued that, in the absence of widely understood laws and ingrained habit, drivers needed visual reinforcement, as did the head of the ICPA:

R.T. Finney, who heads the Illinois Chiefs of Police Association, said more education, improved crosswalk striping, signs and increased enforcement are needed. Finney is police chief in Champaign, which has small, brightly colored signs alerting drivers to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks in the city’s downtown area.

In short, the specific cases that the city has highlighted make a better case for other forms of traffic-safety regulations than speed cameras. And it’s a shame, because there’s actually a really good case for speed cameras—it’s just not necessarily the one the city has been making. As both Steven Vance and I have argued, the research done on speed cameras makes a very good argument for their utility: they not only reduce speeding, but injuries and fatalities. If they’re not the best means of protecting pedestrians from drivers, they have been successful at protecting drivers from each other, which is just as worthy a goal.

France in particular has had tremendous recent success in reducing traffic fatalities. And as Tom Vanderbilt writes, speed cameras have been one element of their approach:

The consequences of not issuing tickets were shown in a recent study of traffic violations in New York City. From 2001 to 2006, the number of fatalities in which speeding was implicated rose 11 percent. During the same period, the number of speeding summons issued by the NYPD dropped 11 percent. Similarly, summonses for red-light-running violations dropped 13 percent between 2006 and 2008, even as the number of crashes increased. As an alternative approach, consider France, where the dangerous driver is as storied a cliché as a beret on the head and a baguette under the arm. As the ITE Journal notes, since 2000, France has reduced its road fatality rate by an incredible 43 percent. Instrumental in that reduction has been a roll-out of automated speed cameras and a toughening of penalties. For example, negligent driving resulting in a death, which often results in little punishment in the United States, carries a penalty of five years in prison and a 75,000-euro fine.

With a push from Resolute, the city narrowed its case for speed cameras from the beginning. While it’s not necessarily a fatal error (we’ll see tomorrow), it’s caused the administration more trouble than it needed—and more importantly, muddled an important dialog on pedestrian and traffic safety, of which speed cameras could play a useful role, but not in isolation.

 

Photograph: Benimoto (CC by 2.0)

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