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speed camera Roosevelt near Damen

A 30 mph street sign on West Roosevelt Road near South Damen Avenue on the Near West Side, Thursday, April 11, 2024.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Would lowering the citywide speed limit actually slow down Chicago drivers?

A City Council committee in May discussed the idea of reducing the default limit from 30 mph to 25. WBEZ analyzed city data to see what impact a similar change has had.

In early May, the city council’s traffic and pedestrian safety committee listened to testimony about the benefits of driving slower.

The idea on the table was lowering the citywide default speed limit from 30 miles per hour to 25. During the meeting, city officials said the reason was to improve traffic safety, not to generate more revenue from speeding tickets.

“Oftentimes, folks think of speed limit legislation as a cash grab by the city. And I want to be clear that I would never introduce, vote on, bring forth in this committee legislation that was not coupled with equitable enforcement reform,” said Ald. Daniel La Spata, 1st Ward, who serves as the traffic safety committee chairperson.

Vig Krishnamurthy, deputy commissioner of the city’s department of transportation, cited research that showed a pedestrian’s odds of surviving being struck by a vehicle moving 25 mph are five times better than a person hit at up to 35 mph. Krishnamurthy also noted other big cities have slashed limits to 25 mph — including New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. — and seen a notable reduction in speeding over 40 mph.

As yet, no legislation has been introduced to lower the default citywide speed limit in Chicago. City data show that fatal traffic crashes have come down: In 2021, the tally reached 165, the highest level in recent years, and then fell to 150 in 2022 and 148 in 2023. But it could take many years — and hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and fees along the way — before Chicagoans change their driving habits. WBEZ analyzed speed camera data from the city and found that motorists haven’t fully adjusted to Chicago’s latest attempt to make them slow down.

Here are a few takeaways:

Immediate and dramatic results

In March 2021, citing similar safety concerns, the city lowered the ticketing threshold for Chicago’s speed cameras — from driving 11 miles per hour over the posted speed limit to just 6. That change was, effectively, the same 5 mph reduction in the speed limit some alderpersons are now pondering.

From the start, the number of violations skyrocketed.

(And so did the revenue generated; according to one report, the city’s speed cameras brought in more than $100 million in 2023.)

In the last full month before the change took effect — February 2021 — just over 27,000 violations were clocked by the nearly 125 speed cameras throughout the city, according to WBEZ’s analysis. In March 2021, the first month when tickets were issued for driving at least 6 miles per hour over the speed limit, the number of violations rose 12-fold to more than 326,000 violations captured by 138 cameras, the data show.

Chicagoans are adjusting — but slowly

The change has been in effect for more than three years, and Chicagoans are still adjusting.

Although the number of violations have steadily fallen, motorists continue to drive fast enough to trigger the automatic speeding ticket far more often now than before the ticketing threshold was lowered.

In the year through Feb. 2024, there were roughly 2.3 million speed camera violations in Chicago — 210% more than the total from the same period ending in Feb. 2021, the last full year before the change.

Old hot spots remain hot, and new cameras create new hot spots

The thinking goes: If the pain of paying a fine is meant to deter speeding, motorists who know the cameras are watching are more likely to slow down. On the flip side, newly installed cameras may catch drivers unaware of their presence, and thus excessive speeding — measured by tickets issued — is likely to persist.

WBEZ analyzed violations captured by individual cameras to gauge how well drivers are adjusting at specific locations. In all, WBEZ looked at nearly 100 speed cameras that were in operation both during the first full year after the ticketing threshold was lowered (from March 1, 2021 to Feb. 28, 2022) and the same time period two years later.

The analysis showed that the reductions have been smaller in areas with the highest violation totals, even as violations have decreased by at least 25% at most locations. In other words, high-traffic corridors have proven somewhat resistant to improvement.

Among the top 10 locations for total violations during the first full year of the lower threshold, only three were among the 40 most improved locations ranked by percentage declines in violations between the first and third year after the change, ending Feb. 28, 2024.

Meanwhile, several spots have consistently remained perennial leaders in speeding violations — ranking among the top 10 offenders each year since 2021. These include the cameras at:

  • 536 E. Morgan Drive, in Washington Park on the South Side;
  • 445 W. 127th St. on the Far South Side;
  • 4909 N. Cicero Ave. on the Northwest Side;
  • and 4124 W. Foster Ave. in Gompers Park on the North Side.

Recently installed speed cameras have tallied some of the city’s highest violation totals over the past year. For example, among the top seven speed cameras for total violations in 2023, three of them were installed just that year.

The speed camera at 901 N. Clark St., near Washington Square Park, ranked second in violations among all speed cameras last year despite not coming on line until March 21, 2023. And the speed camera at 4949 W. Lawrence Ave., near Thuis Park, ranked sixth last year even though it didn’t start operating until March 22, 2023.

According to city data, the Beverly community is getting three new speed cameras this year. Two of them — at 2700 W. 103rd St. and at 10540 S. Western Ave. — began operating in June. And a third — at 1732 W. 99th St. — will start operating this month.

New York City held up as a model for Chicago

During the subject matter hearing, La Spata highlighted New York City, which reduced its default citywide speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph a decade ago. From 2014 to 2023, annual pedestrian deaths there declined by 23%, according to written testimony from Erin LaFarge, the director of safety policy at the New York City Department of Transportation.

Chicago lawmakers had invited New York City officials to submit testimony about their efforts to reduce traffic fatalities, according to an April press release from the New York City Department of Transportation. In his testimony, LaFarge highlighted how the speed cameras are changing driver behavior, noting a steady decline in violations and that most offenders have been cited for just one or two violations.

However, not all motorists are falling in line. According to a Bloomberg report, New York City has seen a rising number of so-called “super speeders” — individuals with at least 100 violations each — who account for a large share of overall violations. In addition to lowering its default citywide speed limit, New York City has also greatly expanded its use of speed cameras. Initially, New York City operated speed cameras in just 20 school zones — areas within a quarter-mile of a school — and only during limited hours and days.

Today, that number has ballooned to about 2,500 speed cameras throughout New York City’s five boroughs, operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in 750 school zones, the maximum allowed, according to reports from Staten Island Advance and Bloomberg. In the first nine months of 2023, New York City’s speed cameras racked up 4.46 million violations, generating $223 million dollars.

The scope and scale of speed camera usage in Chicago pales in comparison. While it has grown from a small pilot program, there are only 162 speed cameras across the city. The cameras are within close proximity to schools and parks, just an eighth of a mile. And they monitor traffic for only parts of the day — typically, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. near parks, and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. near schools. The speed limit near schools is lowered to 20 mph during hours when schools are open and children are present.

New York City’s ticketing threshold is higher than Chicago’s by 5 mph. Drivers there are fined when they speed at least 11 mph above the limit. For drivers in Chicago, tickets are triggered at 6 or more mph over the speed limit. In other words, motorists in both Chicago and New York City are fined once their speedometers hit 36 mph based on their respective citywide default speed limits.

But in New York City, drivers are fined $50, regardless of how much over the limit they drive. In Chicago, the city fines motorists $35 for exceeding the speed limit by 6 to 10 mph but $100 at 11 mph or more.

The upshot? If Chicago lowers its citywide speed limit to 25 mph and maintains its tiered fine structure, driving at 36 mph or higher will now result in a $100, not $35, ticket. Based on the data, it would seem that using automated speed enforcement to get Chicago drivers to slow down will come with a cost — both in time and money.

Alden Loury is the data projects editor for WBEZ. Follow him at @AldenLoury.

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