Red-light cameras a case study in Chicago corruption, waste and failure

July 21, 2014
By Austin Berg

Chicago has the most red-light cameras of any city in the country. Since 2003, the city’s 352 cameras have levied nearly half a billion dollars in fines.

These cameras are sold to the public as a way to promote traffic safety, but the real outcome of the city’s program has been to grift lawful drivers while making sweetheart deals with poorly run companies.

The Chicago Tribune is now reporting that cameras throughout the city have burdened thousands of Chicagoans with wrongfully issued $100 tickets over the last five years, at least.

After analyzing 4 million tickets issued by the cameras since 2007, Tribune reporters David Kidwell and Alex Richards found instances of dramatic, arbitrary spikes in the number of drivers ticketed by the cameras.

It’s not surprising.

The company that installed and operated the cameras, Redflex, was fired last year after admitting to “likely” paying $2 million in bribes to Madigan-insider John Bills. Redflex was supposed to have monitored its system for spikes like this, but that never happened.

The improper tickets were caused by shortened or irregular yellow-light patterns, as well as error-prone analysis of rolling stops on right turns. The wrongful right-turn tickets were caused by limitations of the cameras’ technology. It’s just too difficult to tell if a car has come to a complete stop, is inching forward to see if it’s clear to make the turn or if these maneuvers are at all unsafe.

As for the irregular yellow lights, experts consulted by the Tribune could think of only two explanations:

“Either someone deliberately tinkered with cameras to generate more tickets, or the system malfunctioned repeatedly, resulting in wrongful citations. Those anomalies, they said, should have been detected and addressed.”

A Tribune case study showed a one-second shortening of a Lincoln Avenue yellow light generating 100 tickets over a 12-day boon.

Evidence as to whether red-light cameras improve traffic safety is mixed at best. Some research suggests that red-light cameras increase the number of crashes at intersections. An audit of Chicago’s program by the Inspector General’s office found no evidence that the program increased the safety of city streets.

Even though the city has no evidence that its red-light cameras are improving safety, Mayor Rahm Emanuel signed a $44.1 million, five-year deal that replaced Redflex with Xerox, saving taxpayers around $10 million each year. Xerox lost its Baltimore contract in 2013 after equipment failures resulted in thousands of wrongfully issued tickets. And the parallels with now-disgraced Redflex don’t end there, it’s also a politically connected firm, with a “clout-heavy” team that includes Democratic strategist Kevin Conlon.

Taxpayers deserve to be saving more than the difference in cost between two bad companies. The cameras, proven to be unsuccessful, should be eliminated altogether.

Even if red-light cameras were effective, it seems the city hasn’t been concerned with reducing crash rates at the most dangerous intersections. A Chicago Sun-Times report found that 42 percent of the 130 intersections where the city installed cameras in 2008 were not even among the top 200 intersections with the highest angle crash rates (angle crashes are those which are not rear-end collisions). And the Inspector General’s audit found it “troubling that [The Chicago Department of Transportation] cannot produce documentation of analysis demonstrating how each camera location was chosen.”

In short, Chicago government has been wildly ineffective in implementing a program that has zero benefit to taxpayers. It’s time for city officials to stop the shameless cronyism and eliminate this 20-car pileup of a system altogether.

Image source. 

TAGS: Chicago, corruption, cronyism, failure, red light cameras, Redflex, waste