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Chicago Speed Cameras: Emanuel Exaggerates Safety Impact, Downplays Projected Revenue

First Posted: 11/08/11 01:06 PM ET Updated: 11/08/11 03:32 PM ET

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Now that his proposal to use red-light cameras to record and issue tickets for speeding infractions has passed the state Senate, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel focused on pushing the bill through the House at a news conference Monday.

The mayor highlighted two recent accidents where children were killed or seriously injured in collisions, including the Oct. 29 death of Diamond Robinson, 6, according to the Chicago Tribune. Video monitors displayed live feeds from red-light cameras at several particularly dangerous intersections in the city.

"While we're speaking, Diamond Robinson, who was hit by a car near a school … they're actually having her funeral," Emanuel said, according to the Tribune. "That is a reminder of what we're talking about today and the full price and consequences of what we're talking about today."

But the incidents the mayor cited both occurred at intersections that wouldn't have speed cameras under the current terms in Emanuel's legislation, the Tribune reports.

The bill that passed the Senate would approve the use of speed cameras at 79 red-light camera intersections within one-eighth of a mile around schools and parks, and would operate between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., the Chicago Sun-Times reports. Previous studies of the areas qualified for speed cameras found that 66 percent of the city would fall into enforceable boundaries.

Chicago Transport Commissioner Gabe Klein told the Sun-Times that $100 fines or graduated fines depending on speed would be automatically mailed to the license plate holder of vehicles traveling five miles or more over the speed limit, after a 30-day adjustment period where warning tickets would be issued.

Emanuel has consistently argued that the speed camera plan is intended to be a deterrent, and a safety measure, not a revenue-generator, but has said that the money generated by fines would continue to further safety initiatives.

"Any revenue goes back to school programs. It doesn’t go to fund the deficit, if we ever get anything," Emanuel said, according to Fox Chicago. "After school programs, speed bumps, there’s a host of things you can do to protect children. So the revenue is dedicated to our children’s safety in and around schools."

But the mayor has been accused of downplaying the revenue-generating power of the speed cameras, which a joint investigation by CBS2 and The Expired Meter blog suggests could far exceed red-light camera yields.

The Chicago Department of Transportation cast feelers with a two-month study of seven intersection approaches--single legs leading into intersections with two or more streets, monitoring vehicle speeds from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. and noon until 4 p.m. on weekdays, The Expired Meter reports. During those nine hours per day, over 43 days, 1,418,797 vehicles were recorded, 131,034 of which would have been issued tickets under the proposed system. That sample group alone would have generated $13.1 million in fines.

Under the current version of the speed monitoring bill, cameras would be operational from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m., an additional seven hours of enforcement time, according to The Expired Meter, and safety zones near park districts would operate seven days a week for even longer hours. Based on the average 48 violations per hour per camera recorded in the exploratory test, each camera would produce 768 violations a day, totaling $11.5 million monthly between seven cameras. At nearly $100 million annually, those seven cameras would far outpace annual revenue generated by all 382 red-light cameras.

Speed camera opponent Brian Costin at the Illinois Policy Institute told The Expired Meter that the terms of enforcement suggest the plan is "blatantly about revenue."

"I am gravely concerned when the City of Chicago says they're doing something to improve traffic safety," says Costin. “Their track record it horrible. You can tell it's not really about safety when you look at the hours of operation (proposed hours of enforcement) are not during just school hours but when most people drive to maximize revenue."

Commissioner Gabe Klein has argued that the city hopes this revenue stream will taper as the cameras become a deterrent to unsafe driving practices.

"The goal is to change people's behavior," said Klein, according to WBEZ. "You have education, engineering and enforcement. And if you don't have enforcement the other two aren't as effective."

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Filed by Lizzie Schiffman  |