Dozens of Chicago cab drivers have collected multiple unpaid red light tickets but remain on the city streets despite their poor driving records.
The City of Chicago keeps a database of unpaid red light tickets, and scores of "TX" license plates -- the designation given to taxi cabs -- appear on the rolls, according to data provided to Unit 5 by the city through a Freedom of Information act request.
Officials from the city's Department of Revenue supplied Unit 5 with a spreadsheet containing a small subset of such violators: a list of a list of cab drivers whose licenses were up for their annual renewal between June of 2012 and October of 2012, who each had red light citations that remained unpaid.
But even within this sampling, there are scores of cab drivers who have blown a significant number of red lights.
The grand champion of the city’s sampling -- a cabbie who had 27 tickets -- had his cab license revoked. But plenty of others, carrying a dozen or more apiece, are still on the road.
Part of the problem is the way the red light statute was written. In Illinois, three moving violations can cost a motorist his license. But under Illinois law, infractions recorded by red light cameras are not considered moving violations because the state has no way of verifying who was actually driving the car. As long as the tickets are paid, they have no effect on a motorist’s driving privileges.
Ironically, the lone exception to that problem would appear to be taxi drivers. Even though the red light cameras record only a license plate, leasing information tells the city who was actually behind the wheel of the cab. And only recently have efforts been made to bring that information into the license-renewal process.
"We’re trying to elevate the profession," said Rosemary Krimbel, commissioner of the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. "The first thing we did was reach out to the police department about getting information on our taxi drivers’ arrests, warrants, and traffic violations."
Krimbel said her staff matches that data with information on traffic accidents, along with a monthly report from the Illinois Secretary of State, running the drivers’ license numbers for the more than 14,000 taxi licenses issued in the City of Chicago. That is matched with a report from the city’s Department of Revenue, on every unpaid red light ticket ending with the taxi designator TX.
"When a chauffeur comes in now for renewal, we can look at all of that. We can say, 'You know, not so sure you should be a driver,'" Krimbel said.
"Sometimes they turn around. Sometimes they improve; they become better; we watch them. Other times we don’t even take that chance, and we just take their license away."
Since that program was instituted, denials and revocations have skyrocketed. So far this year, the city has revoked the licenses of two dozen cab drivers, more than triple the number of the previous administration. And another 120 drivers were denied renewals.
Krimbel conceded that unless the numbers are especially egregious, red light violations alone will not cost a driver his or her license.
"The red light tickets are one point of data that we look at," she said. "So I cannot tell you that we’ve ever revoked someone solely on red light tickets. I can tell you that the very first time that we got a report, we saw somebody on that list with 27 red light tickets."
And although that driver lost his license, plenty of others are still on the streets. A look at the partial red light database tendered for the licensing procedure showed multiple drivers with more than a dozen red light violations. Many had run the same lights multiple times. One had run a light twice in eleven minutes. And the city conceded that list only included the tickets those drivers had not paid.
Jennifer Lipford, a spokesperson for the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, said the unpaid ticket list was only an indicator of drivers for whom the city needed to "dig deeper."
She conceded that a fuller exploration of the numbers might yield ever larger numbers of blown stoplights.
The map below shows the 12 red lights that one Chicago cab driver ran through over one 16 month period. Note that this map shows only the tickets that the driver still hasn't paid, and would not include possible additional red light tickets that have been paid or settled. This driver is still on the road, still driving a Chicago cab.
View Snapshot: One Chicago Cab Driver's (Unpaid) Red Light Violations in a larger map