Red Light Runaround

Media frenzy on cameras confusion

By Steve Rhodes
|  Tuesday, Jul 28, 2009  |  Updated 1:19 PM CDT
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Red Light Runaround

nbc4i.com

They can see into your wallet.

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Do red-light cameras work?

It's the media topic du jour, but it's not clear we're any closer to the answer.

"Red-light cameras have joined the weather and underachieving sports teams as one of the most popular topics to complain about in Chicago. But however people might feel about the cameras, they seem to be working," the Sun-Times reported last month.

Not so fast, the Tribune is reporting this week.

While red-light cameras are "raking in cash," they aren't necessarily making intersections safer, the paper says.

"Federal safety experts say red-light cameras can improve safety if carefully placed where potentially deadly side-impact accidents occur with frequency. But a Tribune analysis of accident data has found that red-light cameras in Chicago suburbs are often at intersections rarely plagued by such crashes.

"The vast majority of red-light camera tickets are issued for failure to make a complete stop before a right turn on red - not for blowing through an intersection."

The Daily Herald has come to a similar conclusion.

"[A] Daily Herald investigation reveals serious questions about whether cameras are being placed where they are likely to reduce crashes - or where they'll raise the most cash from unsuspecting drivers."

The DH also finds that the cameras aren't taking dangerous drivers off the road; not a single license has been suspended among multiple violators despite millions of tickets being issued.

If a system was being designed with safety in mind, it wouldn't be designed this way.

But what "works" about red-light cameras is the revenue they generate.

And this being Illinois, that revenue is tied to politics.

"Moving with a lightning speed befitting its name, a then-2-year-old British traffic camera-maker called RedSpeed latched onto savvy Illinois political insiders and came to dominate Chicago's lucrative suburban market even though it had never before operated in the U.S.," the Tribune reports.

The Tribune calls the rise of red-light cameras" a textbook example of how to cash in on this state's clubby intersection of public policy and clout."

And yet, red-light cameras roll on.

This week, for example, Carol Stream activated two new cameras.

Schaumburg, meanwhile, has learned its lesson.

"There are many reasons for Chicagoans to poke fun at the northwest suburb of Schaumburg, but the existence of red light cameras soon won't be one of them." Ars Technica notes. "Officials expect to get rid of Schaumburg's sole red light camera in July after the local police department has determined that it provides no appreciable safety benefits."

Steve Rhodes is the proprietor of The Beachwood Reporter, a Chicago-centric news and culture review.

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