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Drivers Deserve to Know if Cash Cow Speed Cameras Really Make Streets Safer

 The speed camera at 2448 N. Clybourn Ave. was ranked 108 in fines-per-day out of the city's 146 cameras.
The speed camera at 2448 N. Clybourn Ave. was ranked 108 in fines-per-day out of the city's 146 cameras.
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

Like most people, I hate speed cameras.

To me, they represent everything that’s wrong with how government uses technology to pick our pockets without getting their hands dirty.

In the golden days of speed traps — when police would post up on the side of the road with a radar gun at the exact spot the speed limit dropped to catch and curb heavy-footed drivers — the system didn’t seem so rigged against regular folks.

A driver had the chance to appeal to a police officer’s human side by shedding a few crocodile tears and pleading for a warning. You had the opportunity to see if the officer had the goods on you by asking to see speed-gun proof of the alleged violation.

And if that didn’t work, there was always a chance to beat the rap in court by arguing the speed gun must not have been calibrated correctly, or there was the chance the ticketing officer would miss the hearing and the fine would get dropped.

Now, the electronic speed trap heartlessly picks your pocket and protesting feels futile.

Any truthful government bureaucrat will tell you the speed trap — whether it’s a strategically placed officer or a revenue-generating camera — has never been about speeding or safety.

“A speed trap exists wherever traffic enforcement is focused on extracting revenue from drivers instead of improving safety, made possible by speed limits posted below the prevailing flow of traffic,” according to the driver advocacy website Motorists.org.

After considering DNAinfo Chicago's comprehensive look at speed camera data — and taking into account the last three speed camera tickets I’ve been hit with since October — it’s pretty clear to me that Chicago’s most lucrative electronic speed traps fit that description.

Take the speed camera in Washington Park, which has racked up more than $3 million in fines. Even Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) told DNAinfo Chicago he wants that particular camera — which has pegged him for speeding three times — removed from his ward because there’s no “proof that it increases safety and stops traffic accidents.”

But government protectors of speed camera revenue argue that something called “available data” indeed offers statistical proof that speed cameras are effective ways of slowing down traffic.

Mike Claffey, spokesman for Chicago's Department of Transporation, cites a 31-percent reduction in tickets after the first six months of a speed camera's life. He said 67 percent of speeders near parks did not repeat the violation.

And, Claffey said, consider this scary statistic: A pedestrian hit by a car going 20 mph has a 95 percent chance of survival, compared to a 15 percent chance of living if she’s struck by a vehicle going 40 mph.

None of the available data provided by the city to reporters Benjamin Woodward and Tanveer Ali, however, offered statistical proof that the cameras have made streets safer, protected more children or reduced accidents or saved a life because a pedestrian was hit at a lower speed.

I got pinched going more than 11 mph over the limit by the camera near Wrightwood Park on Ashland Avenue — a four-lane divided highway without a posted speed limit in sight — at about 10 p.m.

Available data says that particular speed camera has issued more than 20,000 tickets worth nearly $780,000 in fines since March 2014. But the city offered no evidence that the camera reduced accidents.

The speed camera on Irving Park Road between Clark and Seminary streets — a stretch of road sandwiched between cemeteries — has racked up more than $1.5 million in fines since January 2014.

That electronic speed trap was picked as part of the City's Children's Safety Zone Program, which aims to protect children and other pedestrians by reminding motorists to slow down and obey speed laws near parks and schools.

According to a map of Illinois Department of Transportation crash data posted on Ald. Tom Tunney’s 44th Ward website, that speed camera is located on a block that had no accidents involving youth, bicyclists or pedestrians between 2009 and 2011.

I can tell you from experience, though, that the speed camera has changed some driving behaviors on that stretch of Irving Park. I’ve seen more than a few westbound drivers slam on their brakes just before passing the camera.

While there’s no available data on how that method of avoiding speed cameras affects traffic safety, I can tell you, in my case, the sudden mid-block stop that saved both of us from a ticket nearly caused a fender bender.

Certainly, there are plenty of Chicagoans who’ll say, “If you hate getting speeding tickets so much then just slow down, pal.”

But after more than a year — and $58 million in speed cam fines stuffed in city coffers — it’s worth arguing that if the electronic speed traps are for our own safety, it’s about time City Hall collects new crash data near the 147 speed cameras to show drivers we're not getting conned.

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