With corruption accelerating, slam the brakes on Illinois red-light cameras

With corruption accelerating, slam the brakes on Illinois red-light cameras

Whether or not they’re proven to be part of the state’s culture of corruption, Illinois should bring red-light camera programs to a full stop.

Shrieking horns and red sirens usually bring drivers to a standstill. Those sirens are now blaring about the corrupt world of Illinois’ red-light cameras.

But local governments, without reform from Springfield, are putting their foot on the gas.

The Illinois red-light camera boom began in Chicago. The city holds more of the cameras, which spit out $100 tickets, than the next three largest cities with red-light camera programs combined. They rake in $56 million from drivers every year. And the city’s first vendor for the program, Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., infamously bribed high-ranking city official John Bills to get that contract. The Redflex CEO and Bills, a longtime member of House Speaker Mike Madigan’s patronage army, both went to prison.

But the virus had already spread.

Local governments across Illinois have generated over $1 billion from the cameras in the past decade. But notably, the number of red-light cameras outside Chicago tripled over that time. There are now just as many cameras outside the Windy City, generating just as much money, as there are in it. Some of the examples are stunning.

Eight cameras in Crestwood, a Chicago suburb of about 10,000 residents, have generated more than $13 million since coming online in 2016.

Oakbrook Terrace, a city of just over 2,000 residents, has collected over $9.3 million since installing two cameras in August 2017. More than one-third of the city’s total revenue in fiscal year 2018 came from red-light cameras alone.Did pay-to-play schemes play a part in the camera contagion? Connections highlighted in recent federal raids suggest they did.

Oakbrook Terrace obtained its cameras after state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, lobbied the Illinois Department of Transportation, or IDOT, to allow SafeSpeed to operate cameras in the city, even though the need for a camera had dropped significantly and IDOT had repeatedly rejected requests to install them. Federal authorities raided Sandoval’s home and government offices in September. And the search warrant showed that, among other things, agents were seeking documents related to SafeSpeed.

It wasn’t just Sandoval. Federal agents were busy throughout September.

They questioned former Chicago Department of Aviation Deputy Commissioner Bill Helm and seized his cellphone. Helm moonlighted as a consultant for SafeSpeed while earning $125,000 a year at the Department of Aviation, a job he quit in August. He received a cut of every ticket charged from red-light cameras in Matteson and Glendale Heights, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Matteson has charged motorists more than $5.6 million in red-light camera tickets from five cameras since 2016.

The feds subpoenaed the village of Crestwood for information on Mayor Lou Presta’s expense reimbursements. SafeSpeed was a big donor to Presta’s campaign fund as his village raked in millions of dollars from drivers.

They subpoenaed former Democratic state lawmaker and Worth Township official John O’Sullivan, who works as a sales consultant for SafeSpeed.

They contacted Alsip Mayor John Ryan and Summit Mayor Sergio Rodriguez to ask about SafeSpeed.

And SafeSpeed investor Omar Maani is believed to be cooperating with federal investigators.

Authorities are clearly investigating whether the company landed local contracts through illegal payoffs.

But even if corruption did play a part in Illinois’ camera craze, some say they improve public safety. The numbers don’t back them up.

A 2017 Chicago Tribune report found over half of the intersections at which IDOT approved cameras were among the safest in the state. Many permits were also given to intersections that had no red-light camera crashes in the previous three years.

And regardless of where they’re installed, red-light cameras lack clear-cut safety benefits. A 2018 study from Case Western Reserve University found red-light cameras likely do not increase traffic safety. Researchers looked at traffic accident data from Houston, which operated its red-light camera program from 2006 to 2010, and found that while T-bone collisions did indeed decrease during that time, non-angle collisions, such as rear-end crashes, actually increased. Moreover, rather than reducing traffic accidents, the study found that red-light enforcement cameras may have increased accidents overall. A similar study by the Tribune in 2014 found the same results: rear-end crashes were up 22%. In some cases, the number of crashes at an intersection increased after the camera was installed.

In the face of dubious safety benefits and driver angst, local governments across the nation are taking the cameras down.

The number of communities nationwide using red-light cameras has fallen 35% since 2012. And Texas Gov. Greg Abbot signed legislation this year that bans the cameras outright, joining seven other states nationwide that prohibit using red-light cameras to cite drivers, while another three states ban red-light cameras altogether, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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

Whether or not they’re proven to be part of the state’s culture of corruption, Illinois should bring red-light camera programs to a full stop.

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