Mayor Rahm Emanuel billed his soon-to-be-launched speed camera program as being about child safety and not raising cash, but a new Tribune/WGN-TV poll shows most Chicago voters are skeptical of the mayor's rationale and don't want the devices.
The survey logged opposition to speed cameras from 54 percent of those questioned, while 69 percent said money — not safety — was behind the mayor's push to install automated equipment that will nab and ticket lead-footed drivers near parks and schools.
The disparity between those results suggests that even some of the 43 percent of voters who said they back cameras nonetheless harbor doubts about the mayor's stated reasons for wanting them. Just 22 percent of those surveyed agreed with Emanuel that the purpose of his speed camera program was to protect children.
"This is what irritates me about government," said poll respondent Denene Young, of the Chatham neighborhood on the South Side. "It doesn't have anything to do with children. This all sounds like a bunch of malarkey, as my grandmother used to say."
The survey of 700 registered Chicago voters was conducted May 2-10 and has an error margin of 3.7 percentage points.
Emanuel secured approval for speed cameras from the City Council and Illinois Legislature, and by this time next year Chicago may have the largest collection of the devices in the nation. State guidelines allow installation of cameras across nearly half the city, and the city eventually could have hundreds of them in operation, flagging violators for tickets ranging between $35 and $100.
Chicago has long been the U.S. center for red-light cameras, the technological cousin of speed cameras. In 2010, red-light camera tickets generated $69 million for the city, and speed cameras hold the potential to reap an even bigger financial reward. Speeding is a more prevalent driving offense than running red lights.
The dim view of speed cameras among city voters stands in contrast to the generally positive perception of the city's red-light camera program as measured in a 2009 Tribune poll. In that survey, 59 percent of city residents said they considered the devices a "good idea," while 36 percent considered them a "bad idea."
Chicago was in the sixth year of its red-light program in 2009, raising the possibility that over time city residents could similarly warm to speed cameras.
Then again, the administration of former Mayor Richard Daley introduced red-light cameras gradually over a number of years, affording motorists plenty of opportunity to adjust to their presence at more than 190 intersections. Emanuel's administration plans a more rapid rollout of speed cameras.
That's just fine with Roseland neighborhood resident Harriet Edwards, among those in the new poll who welcomed speed cameras.
"The young guys, they tend to speed down any streets, they don't have any consideration for kids going to school," said Edwards, a grandmother who said she winces every time she hears the frequent squeal of tires. "The kids are scared of getting hit. They have crossing guards, but they're even more afraid."
But Scott Klemm of the Portage Park neighborhood said speed bumps would be more effective than cameras in slowing down cars. The 55-year-old said a lifetime of experience in Chicago has conditioned him to be suspicious of political leaders, Emanuel included.
"Who is installing the cameras, and how much money are they making?" Klemm asked. "I'm a cynic. You think they really give a rat's behind about the kids?"
That, indeed, is exactly what Emanuel says is his concern when it comes to speed cameras, which the mayor officially dubbed the Children's Safety Zone program.
"There is nothing more important to the future of Chicago than the safety of our children," Emanuel said after aldermen last month gave the final go-ahead for speed cameras. The devices, he said, "will protect our children as they go to and from school, and as they play in our parks and recreational areas."
At least some of the voter skepticism about speed cameras may have been fueled by the way Emanuel muscled approval through the Legislature in a matter of days last fall, affording lawmakers little time to weigh the merits of a controversial initiative. Before aldermen approved the city ordinance, Emanuel did agree to scale back the hours of operation and to reduce the fine for going 6 mph to 10 mph over the speed limit.
As it turned out, some of the safety claims Emanuel and surrogates made to bolster their case for cameras were later shown to be wrong or exaggerated. The mayor predicated his push for speed cameras on the need to combat a pedestrian safety crisis involving children, but a federally funded study released by the city appeared to contradict that. It found Chicago's pedestrian safety environment improving and already better than those in most large cities.
Another wrinkle linked political clout to the camera push. The drive to legalize speed cameras got a big assist from Emanuel's election lawyer and his former campaign manager, both of whom have financial ties to city red-light camera vendor Redflex, which is expected to be a contender to land the speed camera business.
The poll showed that broad skepticism about cameras and Emanuel's reason for seeking them cut across racial lines, income levels and most age groups. Senior citizens and women voters were evenly split on whether they favored or opposed cameras, but they showed broad consensus that they believed Emanuel sought cameras to raise revenue, not save lives.
Male voters opposed cameras 60 percent to 37 percent.
Benjamin Lamar, a truck driver who lives close to several schools in Englewood, said there are already too many security cameras in his neighborhood, and the speed cameras will be just another hassle.
"There are a lot of kids who are knuckleheads who speed up and down the streets, but they won't care about the cameras," Lamar said. "But for the older adults who are just going to work and trying to pay for their property, this will be a problem."
Elsie Mitchell, a senior citizen from the Jefferson Park neighborhood, admitted to being conflicted about the cameras. She agreed with the argument espoused by Emanuel that cameras might be of value in protecting children from speeders near schools. She also exhibited a somewhat flexible notion of what constituted speeding, however.
Under the new law, the city will be allowed to issue tickets to owners of vehicles clocked by cameras as exceeding the speed limit by 6 miles per hour or more. The speed limit on most arterial streets in Chicago is 30 mph, so going 36 mph could lead to a ticket.
"I don't consider 36 speeding, and I'm an old lady," Mitchell said. "That's going to cause some trouble."