State legislation aimed at reducing the number of children struck by vehicles near schools across Illinois breezed through the House in April, but it hit a speed bump in the Senate well before the General Assembly session ended last week.
A major sticking point was the issue of automated speed-surveillance cameras that Mayor Rahm Emanuel is seeking to install in Chicago, according to safety advocates and a lawmaker who favors expanding the 20 mph school-zone speed limit to include non-school hours.
The Active Transportation Alliance, which works with Chicago officials to enhance traffic safety, especially for pedestrians and cyclists, said that American Traffic Solutions Inc., which City Hall selected in February to become its speed camera vendor, successfully lobbied in Springfield to block the expanded protections in the school-zone law from being placed for an up-or-down vote.
"It's disappointing and surprising that a speed camera company would put the brakes on a bill to expand slower speed limits in order to protect children, but they did," said Ron Burke, executive director of the alliance.
A spokesman for Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions said the company opposes some of the language in the legislation, but it eventually "wants to pass a bill that makes school zones safer.''
Most of the children struck by vehicles near schools in Chicago are hit several hours after the school day is over, a Tribune article in January, based on an analysis of accident statistics, revealed. A total of 1,936 school-aged pedestrians were struck by vehicles in the city between 3 and 7 p.m. from 2007 through 2011, according to police reports.
The pattern holds statewide, according to a separate study conducted by the Active Transportation Alliance.
But Illinois' current school zone law limits vehicle speeds to 20 mph in posted school zones on school days only, between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m., and when children are present.
The House-passed legislation would extend the 20 mph speed limit to whenever children are within 50 feet of the road — around the clock seven days a week. Drivers could be fined $150 for a first offense and at least $300 for a second violation.
The change in the law would appear to potentially generate more speeding tickets, particularly in Chicago if automated speed-surveillance cameras are installed, versus the rest of the state where speed enforcement would be left to police officers patrolling school zones.
The measure, which was approved 90-11 in the House and has numerous co-sponsors in the Senate, never made it to the chamber floor because it wasn't called for a vote in the Senate Transportation Committee, chaired by Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago.
Sandoval told your Getting Around reporter last week that he had only returned to work a week earlier, after breaking several ribs when he was thrown off a horse about a month and a half ago.
"I went for a day to hang out with some cowboys in Peotone," Sandoval said. "They put me on a horse they use for rodeos, and it took me for a ride."
Besides, Sandoval said, the legislation never made it out of the Transportation Committee because he deferred to the wishes of Sen. Julie Morrison, D-Deerfield. Morrison is the chief sponsor of the bill in the Senate.
"She asked me to hold the bill, to do more work on it and hold hearings," Sandoval said. "I said no problem."
Sandoval denied statements by Burke, of the Active Transportation Alliance, that he was approached by Julie Curry, a former state representative-turned-lobbyist who is now working on behalf of American Traffic Solutions, to stall the legislation.
"I am for safe zones around schools," Sandoval said, "but I am about 10,000 feet from having anything to do with this bill."
Curry did not respond to repeated attempts by the Tribune for an interview.
Morrison said she did "visit with Julie Curry maybe a couple of times on this issue."
For the legislation to pass, "It absolutely has to work for Chicago," Morrison said. "We haven't been able to get that done yet. The people who do the cameras are important people. They just are.
"If we legislate something that is 24/7 and the city uses cameras, we have to all be in sync," Morrison said, adding that she was optimistic the legislation will be in play during the fall veto session.
The City of Chicago's position on the legislation is "neutral,'' City Hall spokesman Bill McCaffrey said.
For its part, American Traffic Solutions does not oppose the provision in the legislation extending the hours of the school zone speed limit and the company has done "nothing in any way, shape or form to obstruct the passage of that bill," said Dennis Culloton, a Chicago consultant for the firm.
Culloton said the company advocates clarifying a long-standing quirk in state law that requires the presence of children in order to enforce school zones. That legal provision would force American Traffic Solutions cameras to capture images of children in addition to the speeding vehicle and its license plate in order to charge motorists with violating school zone limits.
Enforcement would be less complicated if the speed camera vendor were not required to show a picture of a child for every violation. The city has estimated speed-camera tickets could total $30 million a year.
Curry suggested revising the language to eliminate the requirement of a child being present, Culloton said.
Burke said it was unfortunate that no legislation to strengthen the school zone law and potentially save lives was approved by the General Assembly during the session.
The Active Transportation Alliance is among a few groups that support the Emanuel administration's plan to deploy speed cameras at several hundred designated safety zones near schools and parks. Critics contend the strategy is a money-grab targeting drivers.
American Traffic Solutions' opposition to the current bill "causes us to question their priorities and whether they are the right vendor for such a safety program in Chicago," Burke said.
"It is surprising that a speed camera company that is supposed to be interested in making streets safer for children would actively oppose this bill," Burke said. "If you are the city, the last thing you would want is for your speed camera vendor to take this odd position."
Tribune reporter David Kidwell contributed.
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