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Politicians have exploited red-light cameras. But the cams do make travel safer.

Chicago Tribune

Monday, January 13, 2020  |  Editorial  |  Editorial Board

Red Light Cameras

Every motorist has been through this teeth-clenching moment: You approach an intersection with a traffic light. You quickly scan the streetscape. Is this one of those intersections with a dreaded red-light camera? Are you going to get slapped with a wallet wallop of a ticket because the yellow light didn’t give you enough time to cross — or simply because City Hall wants the cash?


Driver anxiety about red-light cameras is warranted, given how Chicago and suburban governments have used them like ATMs. Remember the kickback scheme that enabled a red-light camera vendor to secure the city’s lucrative camera contract, and ultimately led to prison terms for the vendor’s ex-CEO and a City Hall operative? And how about those suburban pols who put cameras at intersections with low crash rates, just so they could beef up their local revenues?


That doesn’t mean, however, that red-light cameras should head for the scrap heap. We’ve said before that the devices make getting around safer, as long as they’re placed at intersections where they’re justified — and as long as governments use them as safety enhancements rather than as cash cows.


The manager whom Mayor Lori Lightfoot has tapped to become the city’s new transportation chief, Gia Biagi, said last week that the cameras do indeed serve as a deterrent to unsafe driving. She also said the city will take a close look at the placement of red-light cameras, “the larger question of how many and where, reductions and additions and all of that … particularly over the next couple of weeks as we think about our capital priorities.”


That’s good, because suspicion that City Hall was installing red-light cameras primarily to generate revenue is what made Chicagoans so skeptical of the program in the first place. A 2017 study by Northwestern University’s Transportation Center scrutinized the city’s red-light camera program and urged the city to rely solely on “current and detailed crash statistics” to decide where to deploy red-light cameras.“ Doing so would gain “support of community members who are skeptical about the distribution of cameras,” the study concluded. “Winning over the skeptics will require revealing the site selection criteria.”


That still makes abundant sense. Motorists will feel better about a red-light camera at a neighborhood intersection if they know that corner has a history of crashes caused by people disobeying signals.


The same thinking should apply in the suburbs, where red-light camera systems figure in still unfolding investigations. Federal authorities are probing the relationship between red-light camera company SafeSpeed and officials in several towns. In one instance, the police chief of southwest suburban Justice, which used SafeSpeed to run its red-light camera program, was hired by SafeSpeed to persuade other suburbs to sign up the vendor as its red-light camera manager. SafeSpeed paid the chief 1% of all new red-light camera revenue from municipalities he recruited. Justice dismissed the chief, who denies any wrongdoing.


Last Monday, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza said she was fed up with the cozy relationships between red-light camera vendors and local officials, and announced her office would no longer collect unpaid red-light camera fines on behalf of municipalities. Those suburbs will have to find other means to collect the fines.


Mendoza evidently is within her rights if she breaks away from a system that she says is “clearly broken.” That said, we hope the federal attention ends, punishes and deters all abuses of red-light cameras by politicians and vendors.


We say that because red-light cameras are too valuable to abandon. Data shows that they make intersections safer. And we don’t sympathize with people who run red lights.