The first red light cameras in metropolitan Chicago appeared in the city in 2003. Suburban Bellwood joined the club in 2006. After that, dozens of suburbs hopped on the bandwagon. The pitch has always been the same: Red light runners are a safety menace, and cameras are a surefire way of nabbing them.
But at times a technology meant to make intersections safer instead became a cash register for local governments. The latest example was recently documented by the Chicago Tribune’s Joe Mahr and Matthew Walberg, who looked at how suburban police departments review red light camera video footage to ensure citations are being fairly issued.
Their findings have made motorists’ blood boil.
Here’s the proper protocol: The camera vendor conducts an initial screening of footage to identify violations. That batch gets sent to the police department, which assigns an officer to check each suggested violation and, if verified, approve the issuance of a ticket. Illinois state law requires an officer to approve the violation before the ticket gets mailed.
But some officers sped through videos like a Lamborghini on the Autobahn. How fast? One cop in south suburban Riverdale checked and approved 41 tickets in a 59-second span. His boss was almost as lightning-quick: 396 tickets he approved took just 2 seconds apiece to assess.
So $100 tickets stream out to motorists’ mailboxes without the review that’s crucial if a municipality wants to fairly enforce its laws.
Though local governments have been required since 2011 to analyze the safety impact of cameras and post the results online, a third of the suburbs with cameras failed to do so. And while the law requires suburbs to conduct additional studies on cameras placed where crash rates went up, none of those municipalities complied.
Walberg and Mahr also have written about cameras at intersections with low crash rates, like Route 83 and 22nd Street between Oak Brook and Oakbrook Terrace. The reporters found that the Illinois Department of Transportation initially denied Oakbrook Terrace’s request for a camera there, then acquiesced after state Sens. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, and Martin Sandoval, D-Cicero, intervened. Both lawmakers had received campaign cash from the camera vendor who pushed for the device at that intersection, the paper reported.
And there’s Chicago’s infamous program, riddled with scandal and inconsistent enforcement. A City Hall operative and the ex-CEO of a red light camera vendor got prison terms in 2016 in connection with a kickback scheme that enabled the company to secure the city’s lucrative camera contract.
When the idea of red light cameras first emerged, we backed it. “It’s about time,” we said about the City Council’s vote in 2003 to begin installing cameras. “Many Chicago drivers, it seems, view a red light as a suggestion rather than a command, and that’s dangerous to everyone.”
We still feel that way. But for many governments, the goal of safety has been supplanted by the thirst for cash. That twisting of priorities needs to stop.