Urgent Matters

More speed cameras please, and pronto


Table of Contents:

Cameras that detect speeding vehicles potentially can generate considerable revenue for their jurisdiction, but early evidence indicates that they have the desired impact--slower traffic.

Recently, a Chicago Tribune article cited statistics from the Illinois Department of Transportation that 95% of drivers on the state’s tollway system speed—defined as traveling 11 miles over the posted limit. The article further stated that 14% of motorists cruise along at 20 miles or more above the limit.

I personally can attest to the veracity of the report. I am one of those drivers who stay in the right lane, traveling at or slightly above the speed limit, and I am passed routinely by other vehicles—even semi-tractor trailers—that make it seem as if I’m standing still. It can be terrifying at times. And, I can tell you that the situation isn’t all that much better on the surface roads—people in the Chicago area generally drive like a starving man heading to a buffet.

This situation has been going on for quite some time, so I was pleased when the city of Chicago announced earlier this year that it would start installing speed cameras around schools and parks, ostensibly with the intention of keeping kids safer. Not everyone shared my view. Of course, there were the obligatory “Big Brother” fears. But what really seemed to get people riled were newspaper reports concerning the enormous amount of revenue these cameras potentially will generate for the city’s coffers.

Another Tribune story said that nine cameras installed at four parks—the city has 570 parks, by the way—generated 222,843 warning citations during a 45-day grace period. Had these been actual citations, they would have generated $13.3 million in fines, or $106 million for a full year, the Tribune reported. That was more than enough to get the conspiracy theorists going in full throttle.

As it turns out, things aren’t all that much different in the St. Louis suburb of Moline Acres, Mo., according to David Bobo, a detective sergeant for the town’s police department, who was put in charge of the project when Moline Acres decided to purchase its own speed camera from St. Louis-based B&W Sensors.

“Some people are uncomfortable with it, and I don’t know why,” Bobo said. “All we’re doing is trying to get people to change their behaviors.”

Those who are most unhappy with the speed camera—set up to monitor the town’s main thoroughfare, a four-lane stretch of road, in both directions—regularly protest, according to Bobo. When they see the officers take down the camera, which has to be done every two to three days to recharge the battery, they rev their engines and then gun it.

“I guess they speed by just to show us they can do it,” Bobo said. “One of these days, I’m going to put a uniformed officer down the road a bit with a radar gun to catch them.”

 The scofflaws might not think so, but there is no denying that Moline Acres needed a speed camera. When it first was deployed, the camera flagged 77 violations per hour, or about 1,500 violations per month—and that is a lot, given Moline Acres’ population of just 3,000.

This is even more alarming when you consider that that the cameras only are deployed during daylight hours—to use them at night would require the use of a flash, which might startle a speeding driver and then lead to a crash, said Lauren Griffin, communications coordinator for B&W Sensors.

Moreover, the camera indicated that about 16,000 vehicles travel through the town on that stretch of road every day—a statistic that took Bobo by surprise.

“This has been an enlightening experience, to say the least,” he said.

Discuss this Blog Entry 10

Lima Echo Sierra (not verified)
on Dec 19, 2013

How can a contractor with no commissioned law enforcement officers present you a traffic violation via US mail? I don't know what it's like in other states but here only a commissioned law enforcement officer can write a traffic ticket.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Dec 19, 2013

Is your math correct?

re: "When it first was deployed, the camera flagged 77 violations per hour, or about 1,500 violations per month"


Scott (not verified)
on Dec 19, 2013

It's been a long proven fact (done at the university level) that most drivers will drive at speeds they feel comfortable at and most are conscious of their surroundings, rarely driving unsafely. As you've stated, this is usually above the posted speed limit. Unattended speed cameras are just like unmarked "traffic" cars: revenue. This is also exacerbated by those areas where such speed limits are set artificially low. High levels of such traffic enforcement are always looked upon from the municipality as a "profit center." Remember, it's also been shown that strict traffic enforcement of speed limits has not been shown to reduce accidents.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Dec 19, 2013

I'm afraid that the author's conclusion about speed cameras always slowing down traffic is not true.
The State of Arizona fairly recently used speed cameras for a time on State Highways and Interstates, including in urban areas such as Metro Phoenix. In no time at all, people had learned what speed to be under while passing a camera and also knew that they were able to go 15-20 MPH faster once they were past that camera.
Instead of a percentage of people going 5-10 mph over the limit everywhere on the roads while taking their chances with a police vehicle being amongst them, drivers were taking full advantage of the PD being elsewhere.
I would like to see everyone traveling at a safe speed but in at least the above instance believe that an active police presence works better. Automated systems have the potential to just move the speeding down the road beyond the system.

W. Rick Duel PE W9XB (not verified)
on Dec 19, 2013

What's wrong with taxing speeders? Do we not tax people who drink and smoke? Seems to me all three are "sin" taxes.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Dec 19, 2013

That naivete of this author regarding the knowledge of traffic safety and traffic engineering and speed zoning is appalling. If he was more informed he would know that you cannot alter driver behavior with speed limits - whether raising or lowering them. This has been proven repeatedly. Mass non-compliance with speed limits indicates that either the limits are inappropriate or there is a engineering deficiency that is causing drivers to feel that a higher speed is safe. The act of merely driving a few mph above an arbitray number posted on a sign is not inherently dangerous, as this author wants you to believe. He is probably of the mindset that if you drive 55mph (in a 55 zone) you are safe but at 56mph you are a maniac. Not that he was advocating that strict of enforcement, but the concept is there and the line of thinking is absurd, especially when the focus is only on exceeding the posted limit (not necessarily the same as speeding) which is the primary cause of only a few percent of crashes (at least on highways) according to the NHTSA.
The bottom line is that unreasonable laws and limits cause disrespect for the system and law enforcement. But cities aren't interested in FIXING problems when they can CASH IN on them and fill budget holes and government coffers.
No, instead of advocating for a real solution - traffic engineering - we have people like this author pretending to be a traffic engineer. One who has decided without any proper analysis or study that he knows the solution. And that solution is one he learned all he knows about from a camera vendor's brochures.

Libertarianski (not verified)
on Dec 21, 2013

Of course he's speaking of Chicago, the land of some of the craziest drivers behind Louisiana and the toughest gun control laws in the U.S. (that works well, eh?).

on Dec 21, 2013

Everyone should read the studies, articles, and resources posted on the National Motorists Association website.

The National Motorists Association has been fighting for motorists rights since the the late 70's or early 80's. They fought, in earnest, to overturn the national 55 MPH speed limit that wasted gas and created many unsafe situations. And they have been fighting poor traffic laws, over-zealous enforcement (of which Chicago and Illinois in general is notoriously bad), poor and non-existent engineering, and so on, eve since.

KP (not verified)
on Dec 23, 2013

So many thoughts/points are flooding through my mind as I read the article and subsequent comments...
1. The statistics provided (as described in the first paragraph) were provided by the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority (aka Illinois Tollway).
2. In the traffic studies world, there is something called the "3-E" approach: Education, Enforcement, and Engineering. Usually any change in traffic patterns incorporate at least two of the three E's, but all three should be reviewed. To tackle "chronic speeding" will require efforts in all three arenas.
3. Reducing speed doesn't necessarily reduce accidents (by that much), but it does reduce the severity of the accident.
4. An effort is slowing moving through the transportation enigeering circles in the US to change the focus from road-construction thinking to traffic-flow (operation) thinking. Traffic volumes have grown considerably faster than roadway capicity over the last 30 years. In otherwords, the roads are getting more congested every year. So "new" ways of tackling the traffic engineering aspect of roadways are being reviewed. It may take a while, but roadway geometry and speed limit correlations will probably change in the years ahead.

on Jan 2, 2014

All new vehicles come equipted with some form of "On-Star". All it would take is a wireless transmitter evenly spaced on roads to electronically "govern" the speed of the car. Weather data could automatically change the "governance" to suit conditions or alert "command" of serious conditions to be manually updated. If you don't like cameras, they will skin the cat another way. Compliance!

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Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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