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Chicago Ends Grace Period for Speed Cameras

Chicago's new speed cameras are now bringing in revenue, but city officials say that's not the point.

Four new speed cameras in Chicago caught more than 233,000 speeders in 45 days, which would have brought in $13.8 million in revenue for the city. But that 45-day period was a warning and testing period, intended to let the city examine the effectiveness of its first speed cameras. The grace period is now over.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel predicted that the cameras would generate $15 million in revenue for the remainder of the year once the ticketing period began. Drivers speeding from 6 to 10 mph over the speed limit receive a $35 ticket in the mail, and those speeding 11 mph or more receive a $100 ticket.

The first violations were processed on Oct. 16, said Scott Kubly, managing deputy commissioner for the Chicago Department of Transportation. And despite the mayor’s revenue projection, the goal of the cameras is not to raise money – it’s to make the city safer for everyone on the road, Kubly said.

“Basically, if the cameras never raise any money, they’ve done their job,” Kubly said. “Think about it like a cigarette tax. I don’t think there’s anybody in the public health field that would complain if cigarette taxes never brought in any money, because ultimately what you’re trying to do is de-incentivize a dangerous behavior.”

And although the initial figure of $13.8 million that would have been raised in 45 days might look impressive, it’s not realistic to simply extrapolate that figure to a yearly amount, Kubly said. “What you’re going to see is that people adapt really, really quickly to automated enforcement and start complying with the speed limit in a lot higher numbers,” he said. “Just after the first two weeks of warnings, we saw violation events drop by 40 to 50 percent, depending on the camera. Uniformly, we saw a significant decline in the number of violations.”

The number of violations issued has already dropped by 50 to 60 percent since the initial period, Kubly said. Eventually, he said, the city expects to see an 80 to 90 percent decrease in violations. That figure is based on looking at data gathered by other cities as well as looking at Chicago’s own red light camera program. “We saw a 77 percent decline in red light running within six months of rolling out a camera,” he said.

But with red light cameras, it’s a completely different dynamic than a speed camera, because changes in traffic create a sort of domino effect that makes it harder to get a ticket. Plus, Kubly said, drivers can see the camera flash ahead of them, and they immediately slow down, whereas red light runners are typically alone.

“I think once you get one [ticket], it changes the way you drive,” he said, and that’s the purpose of the speed cameras – to create a larger cultural change in the city that makes the roadways safer.

They chose the camera locations by taking a “data-driven” approach, Kubly said. They began by dividing the city into six regions and placed the cameras throughout them to ensure widespread geographic coverage. They don’t just want people to drive slowly in front of the cameras, he explained. They want people to slow down everywhere.

The city also prioritized intersections near schools and parks, and looked at collision data to further narrow down location options, placing more weight on collisions involving children, pedestrians, and exceptionally high speeds.

To get a ticket from one of these new speed cameras, a driver must not only be speeding, Kubly said, but they must truly not be paying attention to their surroundings. In addition to roadway stencils, he said, there are also several signs, including speed indicator signs that flash the driver's speed as well as the speed limit. Drivers are also warned that speed limits are photo enforced before they arrive at the camera.

Kubly admitted that in his younger years, he frequently drove above the speed limit, but now that he has slowed down, it’s much easier and less stressful to just obey the speed limit. Besides, he said, traffic lights are timed for the speed limit, so speeding doesn’t really get a driver to their destination that much faster.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.