Red light camera tickets a hot mess in Chicago

BY BRADY CREMEENS | Special to Watchdog.org

CHICAGO — A substantial city revenue source has come under fire this week as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced 9,000 drivers would be allowed to contest tickets they received from red light cameras.

Since 2007, the city of Chicago has issued more than four million tickets via red light camera, bringing in more than $400 million, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Questions over the validity of many of the tickets, as well as skepticism surrounding the safety benefits of red light ticket cameras has put the mayor’s office back on its heels.

Emanuel announced the review policy just days after the Tribune published a 10-month investigation that reported “thousands”of the tickets issued via red light cameras came during short periods of specific times, while there were major lulls in ticket over other, extended periods of time. This suggested that perhaps the city was purposefully manipulating the system to assign more tickets at certain intersections or during certain times.

“The analysis of more than 4 million tickets issued since 2007 found cases where intersections that had issued just a few tickets a day temporarily began spewing them at rates of up to 56 per day,” reported the Tribune. “A phenomenon that traffic engineers shown the research say is likely the result of faulty equipment, human tinkering or both. City transportation officials have acknowledged that faulty equipment is a likely culprit in some of the ticket surges.”

For its part, the city said the numbers in question are nothing more than random variations.

“There are always spikes in any automated enforcement program due to fluctuations in traffic volume and driver behavior,” Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld told aldermen at a recent City Council committee hearing. “When traffic is impacted by normal construction, special events, or even weather, we cannot always predict where traffic will be pushed, but it is normal for drivers to find their own alternative routes that could include red light cameras.”

Emanuel said the public trust has been breached and the city must work to gain it back.

“If any of the 9,000 are wrong, they’re going to get a refund because they deserve it,” the mayor said in a statement. “There should be no inequity in the system. There should be no aberration. Even though it’s a small percentage — less than one percent — it has to be 100 percent right for there to be trust.”

Professor Rahim F. Benekohal is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, and said red light cameras help prevent traffic violations because people are aware they are always present, as opposed to police officers who may or may not be around at that particular moment.

“They are tool for improving safety at intersections and reducing the cost of in-person law enforcement,” Benekohal said.

He noted the potential downside to these systems and said they often malfunction and innocent people are given tickets and forced to pay fees they shouldn’t have to pay.

State Sen. Tim Bivins, R-Dixon, is a former sheriff and has opposed red light camera legislation. He said technology can be a great tool for law enforcement, but it has to be administered properly.

“It’s just like radar guns,” Bivins said. “If the person utilizing the equipment and analyzing the results isn’t a well-trained officer, the tickets will often be inaccurate. The cameras can be a tool in the proper hands, but they often aren’t.”

Bivins said the argument for the cameras is usually focused on the presumed safety benefits, but the motives aren’t that pure.

“Let’s be realistic, this is all about revenue,” the senator said.

He also said he’s skeptical of the accuracy of the red light cameras.

“I’ve had people come to my office to refute a ticket they received in Chicago and they’ve never even been to Chicago,” he said. “Based on the evidence presented so far, there’s just too much room for error.”

The notion of increased safety benefits from red light cameras is a contentious one and several studies have contested the idea.

A 2007 comparative study conducted by the Virginia Transportation Research Council found that red light cameras had “no demonstrated value” for increasing safety in the tested areas.

The VTRC analysis suggested, “red light running crashes decreased but that rear-end crashes (where a following vehicle strikes the rear of a leading vehicle) increased after the cameras were installed,” and therefore no net increase of safety could be proclaimed. In fact, accidents increased by 27 percent in the tested areas, according to the VTRC.

Similarly, a study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that “cities using red light cameras had an estimated higher rate of red light-running fatalities, specifically 25 percent, than cities that did not use red light cameras.”

The IIHS research suggested that while fewer drivers were speeding up to try and beat red lights because of the cameras, many more were slamming on their breaks and causing rear-end accidents.

“Studies have shown that these cameras have mixed results,” said Professor Abolfazl Mohammadian, Ph.D., a professor of civil and materials engineering at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “They have been successful in some locations, but the main reason for the places they fail is commuters get comfortable on their normal routes, but when they’re forced to change routes [because of construction or other reasons] they don’t allow enough time or are unfamiliar with the streets. They speed up and try to make up for the time they’re losing.”

Mohammadian said the main problem caused by red light cameras are rear-end accidents caused by careful drivers trying to make sure they don’t enter the intersection too late and get cited for a ticket.

“Often, the signal times are not designed properly,” he said. “Yellows are too short, or the lights don’t change in the normal pattern. People are trying to make decisions whether to stop quickly or speed up.”

Mohammadian suggested yellow lights should be made longer and that it’s still up for debate whether using red light cameras to issue tickets is fair to drivers.

Mayor Emanuel’s office identified 12 problem intersections that made up the bulk of the 9,000 tickets

The Transportation Commissioners office said it is taking an active approach to the 9,000 identified potential ticket mistakes, and will be contacting the drivers who are eligible for review. If tickets are found to be unwarranted, refunds will be given.

Brady Cremeens is a reporter with the Watchdog affiliate, Illinois News Network.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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