The Policy Shop: Chicagoland’s red-light camera con

The Policy Shop: Chicagoland’s red-light camera con

This episode of The Policy Shop is by staff writer Patrick Andriesen

Ninety Illinois communities have decided they could use some extra revenue, so they let red-light camera companies install devices that from 2008 through last year issued $1.56 billion in tickets.

At least 527 red-light cameras were in operation by 2022 after the state allowed them in 2008 to expand beyond Chicago. Chicago first installed two red-light cameras in 2003 but now has 300.

Was that geometric increase a matter of public safety that has ended folks trying to get somewhere a little quicker? Hardly.

Chicago cameras handed out most of the fines: over $915.5 million. Plus, Chicago is the only Illinois city to operate 169 speed cameras that issued 1.56 million tickets worth $102 million in 2023.

But red-light camera growth outside Chicago in 2018 started overtaking the city’s fine collections. Chicago fines totaled $38 million last year compared to $61 million for all other municipalities.

Other cities saw the cash and wanted their piece. Those who didn’t see the cash advantage got a little help from corrupt politicians trolling Illinois’ pay-to-play ecosystem. Bribes expanded more municipal leaders’ minds and they saw the possibilities.

The cameras are lucrative, and some municipalities are happy to pull fines from outsiders’ wallets. Who cares if those drivers complain, as long as no resident shows up at the village board meeting with a fistful of tickets. That was likely the conversation in the 17 municipalities that issued more tickets than they have residents, with Bedford Park writing the equivalent of 23 tickets per resident in 2022 and collecting $8.3 million since 2008.

Outside of Chicago, the village of Berwyn generated the second-most revenue from the cameras with $30.8 million in 15 years.

And as to that safety claim local politicians hid behind as they expanded the cameras? Studies suggest red-light enforcement cameras increase the overall number of collisions.

Independent studies from Case Western Reserve University in 2018 and The Chicago Tribune in 2014 suggest while the number of T-bone collisions decrease with the use of red-light cameras by 15%, the number of non-angle collisions, such as rear-enders, increase by 22%. That was seen in Oakbrook Terrace, where the number of crashes at an intersection increased after a camera was installed.

The study by the Chicago Tribune found the Illinois Department of Transportation determined over half of the intersections at which red-light cameras where placed were among the safest in the state prior to installation. A quarter of current cameras were granted permits in spots with no red-light related crashes in at least three years.

The real story of why many cameras exist involves Illinois’ penchant for pay-to-play politics.

The installation of red-light cameras has been tied to a bribery scheme involving the late state Sen. Martin Sandoval serving as legislative protector of red-light camera vendor SafeSpeed LLC.

It was later revealed Sandoval was bribed using government money paid through a SafeSpeed representative who was aiding federal investigators. Sandoval pleaded guilty to taking $250,000 in bribes to ensure their use in Chicago suburbs.

Besides Sandoval, former Cook County Commissioner and former McCook Mayor Jeffrey Tobolski was charged with extortion and had connections to one of SafeSpeed’s main investors.

His chief of staff, Patrick Doherty, was charged with bribery, as was former deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation and former top Illinois Department of Transportation official Bill Helm, both of whom were SafeSpeed agents. However, Helm’s bribery charge was related to a road project, not his SafeSpeed duties.

More recently, the mayors of Oakbrook Terrace and Crestwood, as well as a Democratic state senator from Chicago were all charged with bribery, allegedly accepting bribes linked to red-light camera placement.

The former mayor of Crestwood, Lou Presta, pleaded guilty in 2021 to federal corruption charges after accepting a $5,000 payment from a former SafeSpeed executive
cooperating with the government. Presta had promised to increase the number of active red-light cameras and tickets issued to motorists.

The former mayor of Oakbrook Terrace, Anthony “Tony” Ragucci, pleaded guilty in 2022 to renewing a red-light camera contract in return for cash payments from a former SafeSpeed investor. The Oakbrook Terrace cameras started collecting fines in fiscal year 2018, and issued $9.3 million in tickets in just two years.

State Sen. Emil Jones III, D-Chicago, was charged in 2022 with accepting a $5,000 bribe from a former SafeSpeed executive cooperating with federal authorities. Jones promised to block legislation unfavorable to the company in the Illinois General Assembly.

He pleaded not guilty to charges in fall 2023 before resisting calls by Gov. J.B. Pritzker to resign from office. Jones won reelection in November.

Red-light cameras diminish trust in local government, and impose unfair financial burdens on residents subject to questionable ticketing practices.

Yes, cities get money from the cameras, but they are indiscriminate about taking money from low-income drivers without adding to traffic safety. They create resentment and mistrust as cash grabs. And in Illinois, where the culture of corruption has been built over decades, red-light cameras have worsened that reputation and should be brought to a full stop.

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