Red-light cameras take another $500M from Illinois drivers in 5 years

Red-light cameras take another $500M from Illinois drivers in 5 years

Local governments generated $500 million from red-light camera tickets since 2019, with Chicago alone collecting $223.8 million. Total since 2008: $1.56 billion.

Illinois local governments collected over $500 million in red-light camera ticket revenue from 2019 through 2023, according to an Illinois Policy Institute investigation.

That brings to more than $1.56 billion the red-light camera fines issued to Illinois drivers since 2008. Chicago cameras handed out most of that: over $915.5 million.

“The red-light cameras hit me personally three times,” said Terry Boone, a Winthrop Harbor resident and business owner. “I’m pretty conscious of these things and I really try to pay attention, especially in that little corridor in Waukegan, the ‘trap’ if you will.”

As of 2022, at least 527 red-light cameras were in 90 municipalities since the state allowed them in 2008 to expand beyond Chicago. Chicago first installed two red-light cameras in 2003 but now has 300. Plus, Chicago is the only Illinois city to operate 169 speed cameras that issued 1.56 million tickets worth $102 million in 2023.

An earlier investigation found red-light cameras issued over $1 billion in tickets from 2008 to 2018. This investigation updates that work to find another five years took another $500 million from drivers.

Where you’re likely to get ticketed

While there are 527 chances to be caught by a red-light camera, a few cameras are much more likely to nail drivers. Ten cameras each produced more than $1.5 million in tickets – with one reaping $3.3 million – just during 2022.

Since the state allowed the devices to expand beyond Chicago in 2008, fines have basically doubled from $53.5 million to about $100 million in recent years.

Cameras in the 89 municipalities outside Chicago have driven most of the increase.

Boone and his employees have received enough tickets that he’s limiting his business in cities with red-light cameras, where each ticket can cost $100. Boone owns three businesses, including a rental property management company.

“My staff travels in the area to do business and with 120 apartments, we spend a lot of money on building supplies, appliances and other services in the area, like plumbing and carpenters,” he said.

“At this point, my three daughters are all grown so I have the option to go where I want to go to and spend my money where I want to. And it’s not going to be in Illinois if I know my drivers are going to end up paying for red-light tickets they wouldn’t get elsewhere,” Boone said.

Waukegan got to Boone.

“So this last one was just the icing on the cake,” he said. “I saw the video of the infraction via their online portal and I could see myself pull up to the line. I started behind and pulled up into the intersection so I could see if there was traffic coming. After the traffic was through, I took the turn and then I found out I got a $100 ticket for it.

“I went back to the office, and I decided we would not spend a dime in Waukegan. We’re not getting any supplies or materials. We’re not using any services there. I didn’t want anybody even driving there if we could help it because of these tickets.”

Ticket traps

The cameras are lucrative, and some municipalities are seeing that money come from outsiders’ wallets. That’s likely the case in the 17 municipalities that issued more tickets than they have residents, with Bedford Park writing 23 tickets per resident in 2022 and collecting $8.3 million since 2008.

Chicago red-light cameras generated about 4% less revenue in 2022 than in 2008, but drivers there paid the bulk of fines at $915.5 million through September 2023.

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

Municipalities statewide operated 346 cameras in 2008 and hit a peak of 644 cameras in 2014. The tally was 527 in 2022. Changes came as 60 local governments reduced the number of cameras in their communities and 30 removed red-light cameras entirely. Chicago alone added 40 new red-light cameras to bump the tally back up since 2008.

Making roads safer?

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.

I don’t believe red-light cameras are about improving safety,” Boone said. “Most people don't even know they’re there until the flash. I would understand if they had bigger, more visible signs warning drivers, but I think that would defeat the purpose of cities putting them up in the first place: to accumulate more money from residents.”

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

Camera corruption

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.

“Local trust in these governments is low as it is,” Boone said. “Once a city starts bringing in millions of dollars a year dinging people for minor offenses, that’s going to have an effect on people’s interest in going and spending money there. I'm one example.”

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.

SafeSpeed leaders have denied knowledge of wrongdoing and cut ties with individuals implicated in the bribery schemes. SafeSpeed faces no charges in connection with the corruption cases.

Red-light legislation

In May 2023, the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill banning campaign contributions from the red-light camera industry and barring lawmakers from seeking employment by contracted automated traffic enforcement companies within two years of exiting the legislature.

Several sitting lawmakers accepted campaign contributions prior to the law taking effect on July 28, including Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, who later returned the funds. Because the law did not designate a penalty for violations, more lawmakers have continued to accept contributions since the ban went into effect.

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.

Get the data: Click here to see how local cities compare for cameras and revenue.

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