Red-light cameras blanket suburbs at safe intersections

Red-light cameras blanket suburbs at safe intersections

A quarter of the cameras were installed at intersections without a red-light-related crash in at least three years, and a majority did not meet IDOT criteria, according to the Chicago Tribune.

An investigative report from the Chicago Tribune says the Illinois Department of Transportation, or IDOT, has approved a large number of red-light camera installations at safe intersections in the Chicago suburbs. The report also reveals how influential state lawmakers advocated for red-light camera installation after accepting campaign donations from parties connected to a camera vendor.

The Tribune’s report explains the Illinois General Assembly passed a law in 2006 allowing suburbs to install red-light cameras on their own roads. But for state roads, municipalities still needed authorization from IDOT. IDOT drafted a policy to determine which intersections were dangerous enough to warrant red-light camera authorization, such as those with a certain number of T-bone or left-turn crashes caused by drivers running red lights.

However, IDOT did not follow its original policy.

According to the Tribune’s analysis, 25 percent of the cameras ended up in areas that hadn’t had a red-light-related crash in at least three years. Moreover, more than 50 percent of approved camera projects were at intersections with some of the safest scores in IDOT’s studies, and most of the time IDOT authorized cameras in locations that didn’t even qualify as having red-light crash problems according to IDOT’s own criteria.

The Tribune’s report found IDOT progressively lowered its standards for red-light camera approval. Qualifying intersections were originally supposed to have a specific amount of crashes in order to be approved, but the rule was broadened to allow cameras at any intersection that had “crashes attributable to red light violations,” according to the Tribune.

And that’s not the only way cameras can be installed.

The Tribune’s report found IDOT allows camera permits to be issued if a mayor and police chief simply write letters citing a “perceived safety problem due to red light running,” regardless of the number of actual crashes.

This is troubling for a number of reasons, considering the controversial and corruption-ridden cases involving red-light cameras in recent Illinois history. Red-light cameras are often little more than cash grabs for local government and for camera firms eager for their next payday.

In fact, there’s little proof that red-light cameras actually make driving any safer. A 2004 study by the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University done for the U.S. Department of Transportation showed red-light cameras actually result in higher levels of many types of crashes.

And that study wasn’t a fluke.

According to the National Motorists Association, the majority of independent studies show red-light cameras actually increase the number of car accidents at controlled intersections.

But because red-light cameras remain an easy way for local governments and certain vendors to make money, it’s understandable there’s such an effort to get IDOT to allow these projects.

The Tribune’s report provides an especially blatant example.

The intersection of Illinois Route 83 and 22nd Street, straddling the Chicago suburbs of Oak Brook and Oakbrook Terrace, is one of the busiest stretches of road in the state and at one point was considered among the most dangerous. However, the area became considerably safer after IDOT invested millions in signal improvements and lane additions from 2010 through 2012. As a result of the upgraded infrastructure, crashes declined.

But despite the increased safety, Oakbrook Terrace and SafeSpeed LLC, a camera firm, sought to install red-light cameras at the intersection in 2013, according to the Tribune’s report. However, before installation could take place, IDOT had to approve of the project, and in 2013, IDOT rejected Oakbrook Terrace’s request to install cameras. IDOT instructed Oakbrook Terrace to come back in two years if the number of crashes did not fall.

Oakbrook Terrace applied once again in 2015, despite the fact that crashes declined from 2013. In fact, a study by SafeSpeed showed that the intersection had only half as many violations as indicated in a 2013 SafeSpeed study. IDOT labeled the intersection among the safest of its administered roads.

But Oakbrook Terrace’s 2015 red-light camera effort had the endorsements of state Sens. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, and Martin Sandoval, D-Cicero. The Tribune’s report says that Cullerton received $3,000 in campaign donations from firms connected to SafeSpeed’s owner, and Sandoval received a $5,000 campaign donation from one of SafeSpeed’s owners.

And while both Oak Brook and Oakbrook Terrace are outside Sandoval’s district, Sandoval was at the time and remains chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Both Sandoval and Cullerton reached out to IDOT when Oakbrook Terrace and SafeSpeed renewed their efforts to get red-light cameras. Cullerton wrote a letter to IDOT’s then-top local official John Fortmann, seeking to introduce Fortmann to SafeSpeed and asking for IDOT to approve the application. Sandoval emailed Fortmann a copy of SafeSpeed’s proposal, and according to the Tribune, said that his “assistance would be appreciated.”

Nonetheless, IDOT rejected the application in a letter, noting the intersection’s “low crash rates,” according to the Tribune.

Sandoval called Fortmann about the department’s rejection letter. Despite its recent refusal to grant the application and ample evidence that the intersection was even safer than it was in 2013, IDOT reversed its position and approved the intersection for camera installation.

And in 2016, Sandoval’s campaign received $10,000 from SafeSpeed, and another $10,000 from a firm owned by SafeSpeed owner Nikki Zollar. According to the Tribune, SafeSpeed’s $10,000 donation to Sandoval was the biggest donation it had ever made.

The conflict of interest in this case – at the expense of motorists – is jaw-dropping.

Red-light cameras are ineffective and even counterproductive in keeping motorists safe. IDOT should more tightly restrict the installation of these cameras. Of course, it doesn’t help when state lawmakers who’ve received thousands in campaign donations from red-light camera companies inject themselves into the process.

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