Yesterday, Governor Quinn signed legislation that will permit the City of Chicago to decide whether to install traffic cameras around schools and parks. At the signing ceremony, the governor said, "If you save even one life, you are saving the whole world."
Mayor Emanuel is also keen on more cameras, having asked for this authority since he took office. Both politicians have cited safety as the the legislation's primary purpose and have rejected challenges that this is another opportunity for the city to raise revenues to pay for its numerous obligations.
But just how many children have been killed by motorists lately? Do the number of car-related fatalities and injuries justify expanding what is already the largest, per capita network of surveillance cameras in the country?
I haven't seen those questions asked or answered anywhere, so here's my brief attempt.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which collects traffic data on a state-by-state basis, there were 911 traffic-related fatalities in Illinois in 2009: 12 under 5 years of age, 12 between the ages of 5-9, 12 between 10-15, and 98 between 16-20. The total number of traffic-related fatalities decreased 13 percent from 2008, and decreased 16 percent from 2007 to 2008. Additionally, only 12.2 percent of Illinois's 911 traffic-related fatalities in 2009 were pedestrians.
Whether occurring at schools, parks, or elsewhere, traffic-related fatalities are not an urgent, growing public problem in Illinois.
But imagine it were a big problem. Do traffic cameras actually increase safety?
In 2005, the Washington Post found that after 500,000 tickets and $32 million in fines, car accidents actually increased at intersections equipped with cameras. Granted, these are not cameras placed at schools and parks that only take pictures during the day, but it's another point to make about the effectiveness of traffic cameras generally.
The question of whether Chicago will install cameras around schools and parks now goes to the City Council.
Because traffic-related deaths have been declining steadily over the years, few fatalities are among young children, red light cameras have proven to pose a traffic safety hazard, and all of the civil liberties questions surveillance cameras pose, the City Council must be persuaded to block any attempt to expand the camera network.
There will never be a piece of legislation that prevents any bad thing from happening entirely. In our world of increasing numbers of fast cars, it's remarkable that only 36 Illinois children under 16 years of age were killed by automobiles in a year, and a very good thing that these numbers are improving year after year.
Instead of buying a bunch of expensive new cameras and subjecting motorists to fines between $50-$100 (even if they haven't harmed anyone), why not just improve street signs around schools and parks to let drivers know there are children around?
This approach would be both the most justified and least invasive of innocent people's rights.