Chicago’s Traffic Camera Program: Racial and Income Disparities for Black and Hispanic Drivers
by Harold Hempstead
Chicago’s automated traffic enforcement camera program is one of the largest in America, with almost 300 locations around the city being monitored by cameras. The red-light camera program was introduced in 2003, by then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. His successor Rahm Emanuel expanded the program in 2013 to include speed limit cameras.
During Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2019 campaign, she talked about “ending … the city’s ‘addiction’ to fines and fees” but then expanded the camera program by lowering the speed limits for tickets.
When Lightfoot’s policy chief, Dan Lurie, was asked why the mayor expanded the program despite knowing of the racial disparities, he said the mayor had a “deep concern” about the traffic fatalities, which were “at epidemic levels” and that her administration feels strongly “that cameras are a tool in the toolkit to help alleviate that.”
All of the traffic cameras across Chicago “are distributed roughly evenly among the city’s Black, Latino and white neighborhoods.”
A third-party vendor — not the city — reviews the images of the traffic infraction and vehicle license plate prior to a ticket being sent to the vehicle owner.
Research shows that traffic cameras “help reduce serious accidents by changing driver behavior.” Moreover, “the executive summary of the latest research by [University of Illinois Chicago] … [shows that] speed cameras reduced the unexpected number of fatal crashes and those leading to severe injury by 15%.”
Does the harm from traffic cameras outweigh the safety benefits?
ProPublica analyzed millions of citations issued between 2015 and 2019 and the most recent five-year census survey data. Its analysis revealed “that households in majority Black and Hispanic ZIP codes [in Chicago] received tickets at around twice the rate of those in white areas.”
To be specific, of the 3.1 million camera tickets that went to Chicagoans during the foregoing timeframe, the largest share (about 38%) went to motorists from majority Black zip codes, which account for 27% of the households. Additionally, 19% of the tickets went to motorists from majority Hispanic zip codes, which account for 16% of the households.
About four camera tickets were issued per household in the majority Black zip codes, more than three tickets were issued per household in the majority Hispanic zip codes, and fewer than two tickets were issued per household in the majority white zip codes.
Prior to 2021, about one million camera tickets were issued yearly in Chicago. About $1.3 billion in revenue has been generated from the cameras since the first one was installed in 2003.
More than a half billion dollars in penalties have been issued to motorists from Black neighborhoods over the last 15 years. This has contributed to tens of thousands of license suspensions, vehicle impoundments, and individuals being forced into bankruptcy.
Lightfoot’s lowering of the speed limit requirement had a huge impact. Drivers receive a $100 ticket for running a red-light or driving 11 or more miles per hour over the speed limit. With late fees, that ticket can increase to $244. Drivers receive a $35 ticket for going between six and ten miles per hour over the limit, and that amount rises to $85 when late.
Some observers called Lightfoot’s expansion of the camera program “a money grab.” The 1.4 million tickets issued to motorists going six to ten miles per hour over the limit in 2021 were more speeding tickets than the traffic camera program had issued of that kind in the previous eight years. Those tickets could bring in close to $50 million in revenue for the city.
Chicago no longer seeks driver’s license suspension for unpaid parking tickets. Illinois ended suspensions for every kind of ticket debt, and ticket payment plans with the city are more accessible. City officials also started a pilot program in March 2022 that cut the cost of fines in half “and allows for some debt forgiveness for low-income residents.”
These minor changes have not had any bearing on the racial and income disparities caused by Chicago’s traffic camera program.
Out of the ten red-light cameras at intersections that issued the most tickets, seven of them are within a block of an expressway entrance, and six of them are in majority Black census tracts. Out of the ten that issued the fewest tickets, none of them are near expressways, and only one of them is in a majority Black tract.
Between 2015 and 2019, the ten speed cameras in the city that issued the most tickets for going 11 mph or more over the speed limit were located on four-lane roads, and six of them were in majority Black census tracts.
Out of the ten cameras that issued the fewest speeding tickets, only two of them were in majority Black census tracts, and eight of them were on two-lane streets.
A single speed camera on West 127th Street issued 22,389 $100 tickets in 2020, for drivers going 11 mph or more over the speed limit.
Black and Hispanic workers were impacted more by the ticket disparities during the COVID-19 pandemic, with fewer of these individuals having jobs that allowed them to work from home than their white counterparts. This forced them into their vehicles more often and enhanced the ticket rate for motorists in majority Black zip codes to more than three times that of households in majority white zip codes. The increase in majority Hispanic zip codes was much smaller.
The UIC researchers discovered that red-light cameras in violent areas issue more tickets than the cameras in non-violent areas; people have a tendency to rush through intersections where they feel unsafe.
A lot of Black neighborhoods do not have grocery stores, pharmacies, hospitals, or retail stores. Residents of these neighborhoods have to drive their vehicles outside of their neighborhoods and for longer periods of time than residents of white neighborhoods, thereby exposing them to more red-light cameras.
Road design, traffic-calming measures, and population density will influence how people drive, including how fast they will drive. Multi-lane roads usually lack calming measures, have more traffic on them, and allow higher speeds than single and double lane roads. These conditions enhance speeding and accidents.
Single and two-lane roads have tighter streets, which cause drivers to slow down. The presence of calming measures such as speed bumps, pedestrian islands, concrete medians, marked crosswalks, bicycle infrastructure, sidewalks, red-lights, and stop signs force drivers to slow down as well. Additionally, there is increased vehicle traffic and more pedestrians in neighborhoods with higher population density, which discourages speeding. These factors all contribute to whether a neighborhood is safe or dangerous for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists.
Many of the above listed factors that contribute to speeding and unsafe driving are present in low-income communities of color. “According to a 2017 city report, Black Chicagoans are killed in traffic crashes at twice the rate of white residents.”
Chicago’s latest transportation plan has several infrastructure projects that address factors that contribute to speeding and unsafe driving in low-income communities of color.
In 2016, Rochester, New York officials eliminated their red-light camera program in part “because motorists from low-income neighborhoods received the most tickets and the financial harm outweighed any safety benefits.”
Likewise, in 2017, Miami eliminated its camera program following complaints from “residents who felt unfairly burdened by the fines.”
Additionally, a Washington, D.C., think tank in 2018 and The Washington Post in 2021 found that traffic cameras resulted in a disproportionate share of tickets in Black neighborhoods in that city.
Despite the racial and income disparities associated with the traffic cameras and some cities eliminating their camera programs, citizen groups, safety organizations, elected officials, and others across America have been “pointing to cameras as a ‘race-neutral’ alternative to potentially biased — and, for many Black men, fatal — police traffic stops.”
There is some evidence that traffic cameras tend to contribute to road safety and result in a reduction in police contact with people of color, but they also create a universe of other problems that stem from racial and income disparities.
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