Debate over speeding tickets misses larger point about traffic safety

A narrow focus on speed cameras, fines and fees ignores the social and built environment factors that can encourage or discourage speeding in Black and Latino communities.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, reacting to the legislative tit for tat with Alds. Anthony Beale (9th) and Ray Lopez (15th) following Lightfoot’s decision to again delay a vote on his ordinance that would restore higher thresholds for speed-camera tickets, Wednesday afternoon, June 22, 2022.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a June 22 City Council meeting on an ordinance that would restore higher thresholds for speed-camera tickets.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

On Wednesday, Chicago City Council is scheduled to vote on an ordinance raising the threshold for ticketing motorists caught speeding by automated enforcement cameras. Since March 2021, cameras have issued a $35 ticket to those driving 6 to 10 mph above the speed limit; previously, the threshold was 10 mph.

But the scheduled up or down vote presents a choice that is too limited. The debate around traffic safety and equity is too narrowly focused on speed cameras and the punitive structure of fines and fees.

The focus instead should be on changing unsafe road conditions and the racial inequities that combine and concentrate in Black and Latino communities. 

Both sides of the debate use equity arguments. Supporters of raising the speeding threshold include an equity argument against fines and fees, as they are particularly burdensome for low-income households. Supporters of the current lower speeding threshold state that traffic injuries and fatalities are disproportionately high for Black and Latino residents in Chicago and nationally.

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Last week, the Chicago Department of Public Health had an event titled “Speeding as a Health Equity” issue. They shared troubling statistics on the increasing number of traffic fatalities, racially disparate outcomes, and how a difference in speed between 30 mph and 40 mph can mean a doubling in the likelihood of a pedestrian fatality in a crash.

A poignant reminder of traffic danger is that several children have died this summer as a result of vehicle crashes. Traffic safety is a life-or-death issue. 

An incomplete story

Our research (by Sutton and Tilahun) on automated enforcement has been cited by both sides. Yet we tell a more complex story of important safety improvements, and highly regressive fines and fees that disproportionately burden Black and Latino communities.

We found a 15% reduction in fatal and injury crashes around speed cameras. On the other hand, we also found that the economic burden of camera tickets is disproportionately borne by residents of low-income and majority-Black neighborhoods. They pay a higher share of ticket fees relative to their income and also relative to the number of tickets received. In response to critiques about the regressive structure of fines and fees, Chicago launched a pilot program for debt relief and income-based ticketing discounts, but it does not fully address this and other problems with fines and fees.

Even these statistics from  our study do not tell the whole story of the inequitable landscape for driving behaviors and the city’s fine and fee policies. Among many factors, we found population density mattered for reducing the frequency of speeding tickets. Density is complex but associated with race in Chicago.

We expect that differences in density, vacancy, congestion, land use, and other social and built environment factors could all be important differences. These differences exist in racial patterns across the city, and thus inhibit or encourage speeding.

Listen to the community

An equitable and more effective approach to healthy and safe streets needs to look beyond the current debate. Raising the speed threshold may reduce the number of tickets issued, but it does not fundamentally change the inequitable structure of the economic burden. Late fees, even with complicated forgiveness programs, are particularly inequitable.

Changing the speeding threshold also fails to address how social and physical factors combine to encourage or discourage speeding in ways that, like the concentration of fines and fees, have a disproportionate, negative impact on majority Black and Latino communities. We must tackle these patterns holistically and within the realm of transportation. Redesigning streets to slow driving — using, for example, speed bumps and narrowed, highly visible pedestrian crossings — is critical for safety.

SmartGrowth America cites a 34% decrease in fatalities associated with substantial roadway redesigns to calm traffic in New York City. Such processes must center community voices and Black and brown leaders, as Equiticity has argued. 

Change will be challenging, in part because of ward fragmentation and traditions and in part because many high-speed roadways are owned by Cook County and the Illinois Department of Transportation. However, there is great opportunity for transformation with the recent influx of funds, new programs and guidance from the federal level.

We must think more creatively beyond the punitive status quo in which the majority of camera revenue funds policing.

Kate Lowe, Stacey Sutton and Nebiyou Tilahun are associate professors of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois Chicago. Stacey Sutton is also the director of applied research at the Social Justice Initiative, and faculty fellow at the Center for Urban Economic Development.

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