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Could Technology Help Slow Reckless Drivers in Milwaukee?

vincent desjardins, flickr

Reckless driving is a problem in Milwaukee. So far this year, around 60 people have been killed in vehicle accidents. To help make streets safer, some lawmakers are now considering traffic and red light cameras, but not everyone believes that’s the right direction.

It’s not unusual in Milwaukee for drivers to whip by waiting vehicles using turn lanes and bike lanes, ignore red lights, or weave in and out of traffic, sometimes completing daredevil stunts you would only expect to see in a video game. Sometimes the cars hit speeds that would be reckless even on the interstate.

Steve O’Connell says he’s tired of it. “We’re on the corner of 56th and Capitol, right across from Midtown. And like I say you can stand here and watch cars go right through the red light."

Credit LaToya Dennis
Steve O'COnnell says Milwaukee leaders need to do more to combat reckless driving.

O’Connell is the block watch captain for the Grassland Manor neighborhood, near 56th and Capitol. Two years ago, he says he set out on mission to get people to slow down.

“It’s Russian roulette, yeah it is, its traffic roulette as our Alderman calls it. And it is. And you don’t think about it that way until you’re out there,” O’Connell says.

Part of the problem, he says, is that police have become too lax. He’s looked at Municipal Court Case traffic filings, and says police wrote nearly 112,000 tickets in 2009 and only around 44,000 in 2016. Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn has said he plans to step up traffic enforcement through the end of the year in hot spots where crime and traffic violations seem to go hand-in-hand. But O’Çonnell believes drivers know they likely aren’t going to receive tickets so they do what they want.

“Are we down the road too far? Are people just so used to reckless driving and doing things that they really should not do on city streets that how are you going to slow it down?” he says.

Credit Mario Tama/Getty Images
Cars drive past a red light camera in Laurel, Maryland.

While police have stepped up traffic enforcement in his area, he says it’s not enough. He wants red light and speed cameras and he’s been working with Milwaukee Representative David Crowley to come up with legislation that would do away with Wisconsin’s ban on the technology.

Police have to be given another tool to deal with the epidemic of reckless driving, Crowley says. “We’ve had too many accidents, too many fatalities that affect too many people throughout the city of Milwaukee."

Crowley says he understands there’s a contingent of people who are concerned about not only the privacy issues that cameras present, but also those who worry that only minority neighborhoods would be targeted. He says the legislation deals with both.

“Making sure that we take photographs of the back of the vehicle and not necessarily the front. Making sure that the cameras are turned on when triggered versus continuously recording neighborhoods. We’re also making sure we don’t oversaturate cameras in particular neighborhoods. Especially in communities of color and low income communities. You would not be able to put more than five cameras in a particular aldermanic district to make sure that we are not oversaturating particular neighborhoods,” Crowley says.

Under the legislation, no more than 35 cameras would be allowed in the city. People who break traffic laws would be mailed a ticket. Crowley isn’t sure about the cost, but says taxpayers wouldn’t necessarily be on the hook. He says the city could contract with a company that would install the cameras. The revenue generated would pay for the technology.

But Jarrett English says people in Milwaukee already receive too many municipal tickets that they cannot afford to pay. English is vocal in the community on many issues and says that there’s another way.

“There’s a lot of kind of like urban planning things that can be done. For instance, protected bike lanes. It’s a proven fact that narrow lanes psychologically encourage people to slow down,” he says.

English says examples of what he’s talking about can be seen in Chicago and New York, cones that flip themselves back up after being pushed down, or even more permanent versions that include concrete planers along the path between the bike lane and regular traffic lane. English says the goal should be to criminalize fewer people, not more.

“It’s a punitive measure to stop something that has been kind of ignored and neglected. A lot of times in Milwaukee, seems like we’re always looking for the simplest solution that ends up not being very effective and probably very costly,” English says.

The legislation being considered in Madison would lift the state ban, but not require the city to put cameras in place. That would be up to lawmakers here.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.