After rejiggering its speed cameras to fine any car caught traveling as little as 6 mph over the posted speed limit, the city of Chicago collected record-breaking levels of revenue last year.
Chicago's army of 160 speed cameras issued more than 2.81 million tickets last year and collected $89 million in revenue from motorists, according to data from the Chicago Department of Finance published this week by the Illinois Policy Institute, a free market think tank. That's more tickets than there are residents of the city, and translates to one ticket issued every 11 seconds during the entire year.
Those numbers shatter the city's previous speed camera ticket and revenue totals, likely due to the fact that Mayor Lori Lightfoot in March 2021 ordered the cameras to start targeting slower drivers. Previously, the speed cameras had been programmed to issue tickets and $100 fines to drivers going more than 10 mph over the speed limit. Those fines remain in place, but the city's cameras now also issue $35 fines to drivers going between 6 and 10 mph over the speed limit.
Those $35 tickets accounted for more than two-thirds of the tickets issued by Chicago's cameras during 2021, according to the Department of Finance data.
Lightfoot and other advocates of the speed cameras argue that they make Chicago's streets safer by discouraging high-speed driving, but the Illinois Policy Institute points out that more people died in car accidents in the city during 2021 than in 2020 or 2019.
"The safety argument seems weak in light of the various studies and increase in accident deaths, especially when the cameras are generating so much money for a city with massive pension debt and spending it can't seem to control," writes Patrick Andriesen, a staff writer at the institute. "Speed cameras might be more accurately called cash cams."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the poorest parts of Chicago are where most of the city's cameras are located and, as a result, are hardest hit by the fines. Andriesen points out that nearly half the tickets issued to drivers in low-income neighborhoods were not paid on time; with late fees, those $35 tickets for barely speeding become $85 tickets.
Even before the cameras were tuned to target less dangerous drivers, the system was a regressive tax that fell most heavily on Chicago's poorest neighborhoods. A ProPublica analysis of the city's traffic cameras—including both speed cameras and it's corrupt red-light camera system—found that Chicago had generated over $500 million in 15 years from automatic tickets issued in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Those fines contributed to "thousands of vehicle impoundments, driver's license suspensions, and bankruptcies," ProPublica found.
Unfortunately, some federal officials want to use Chicago's speed cameras as a model for the rest of the country.
As Reason's Julian Verdon reported in February, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg's new National Roadway Safety Strategy (NRSS) is promoting speed cameras nationwide as a "proven safety countermeasure" that can reduce fatal car crashes.
Never mind the fact that those cameras often fine the wrong vehicle and force falsely accused drivers to go through lengthy legal battles to avoid paying up. This is definitely all about highway safety, yup, which is exactly why the city of Chicago once got caught deliberately not sending notices to ticketed drivers so they could rack up additional late fees. And that's why the most notorious speed camera in Washington, D.C., is located in a "work zone" where there is usually not any road work taking place, allowing the city to double every fine.
Car crashes and traffic deaths might be up in Chicago since the city lowered the threshold for issuing speed tickets, but revenue is through the roof; perhaps the program is working exactly as intended.