Quick Hit Aaron Krager Tuesday November 1st, 2011, 4:34pm

Red-Light Camera Bill: Safety Net Or Cash Cow?

City drivers could soon face more than just a ticket for a red-light violation if pending legislation in Springfield passes. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is advocating for the bill, which would give the city the ability to ticket speeders in so-called public safety zones through the use of the already existing red-light camera system and the installation of ground-based speed strips.

A new report by Illinois Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) claims the system puts monetary profit over public safety. The group believes any deal between private companies and the city should include safeguards to better ensure the program is about the public good and not a cash cow for the city.

“Our report found that too many cities wrongly sign away power to ensure the safety of citizens on the roads when they privatize traffic law enforcement. Nationally, automated traffic ticketing tends to be governed by contracts that focus more on profits than safety.” said Celeste Meiffren, field director of Illinois PIRG. “That shouldn’t happen.”

Municipalities continue to struggle with deep budget gaps; Chicago currently faces a budget deficit of more than $636 million. In 2008 alone, red-light camera’s generated $45 million and more than three-quarters of a million tickets were issued in 2009. The inclusion of speed detection systems would garner even more tickets and revenue for the city.

"I think it's piling on. It's really kind of draconian," Ald. Joe Moore told the Chicago Tribune. "The jury is still out on whether the red-light cameras are effective in terms of safety. ... So then it really becomes a revenue-raising tool, rather than a public safety tool, and I think there are more honest ways of raising money.

Illinois falls only behind California and Florida in the number of jurisdictions with red-light cameras. According to Illinois PIRG, Chicago has 380 cameras around the city, having the largest contract in the county with Redflex Traffic Systems. The company hired over a hundred lobbyists in the last five years in at least 18 states to secure legislation like the one currently proposed in Springfield, which passed the Illinois Senate 32-24 last week. Senate President John Cullerton is working with House Speaker Michael Madigan, saying they will likely narrow the bill's reach as it moves through the House.  

“It is hard to imagine meter readers lobbying for an increase in the number of parking meters in town, or traffic cops arguing for more stop signs, solely on the basis that doing so would enable them to write more tickets,” said Meiffren. “Yet, that is precisely the dynamic that exists with the privatized traffic enforcement industry.”

Meiffren and her group would like to see basic safeguards to ensure the system is in place for safety reasons, not profit:

  • Put public safety first in decisions regarding enforcement of traffic laws – this includes evaluating privatized law enforcement camera systems against alternative options without regard to potential revenues.
  • Ensure that contract language is free from potential conflicts of interest.
  • Avoid direct or indirect incentives for vendors that are based on the volume of tickets or fines.
  • Retain public control over traffic policy and engineering decisions, including cancelling contracts if the public is dissatisfied.
  • Ensure that the process of contracting with vendors is completely open, with ample opportunity for public participation and each ticket listing where to find online data about automated ticketing for each intersection.
  • Illinois PIRG bases these guidelines upon contracts and situations in other municipalities around the nation. For instance, in Walnut, CA the company can assess a financial penalty on the town if it waives ten percent or more of the violations.

    "The idea is not to begin writing a lot of tickets. It's about getting people to slow down. It's about changing behavior," said Gabe Klein, traffic commissioner, to the Chicago Tribune. "Having an expectation that police can handle this on their own is unrealistic."

    Administration officials cite the city’s Department of Transportation statistics showing 84 percent of pedestrian accidents happen within a quarter-mile of a park or school. The exact places Emanuel wants to secure. In less than two years after installing a similar system, the City of Baltimore handed out more than a half million tickets at $40 a piece generating $18 million. Chicago’s fines are two and half times higher with a more than four times the population.

    Image: The ExpiredMeter.com


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    I don't think you're giving a balanced representation of IL-PIRG's report or other research (http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/speedmgt/ref_mats/fhwasa09028/47.htm) on automated enforcement. There certainly are safety benefits. IL-PIRG's concerns about contracts are still legitimate, but it's also worth noting their report was a national review, and in their press release (http://www.illinoispirg.org/news-releases/stop-taxpayer-givaways-news/st...) they say Illinois and Chicago have actually done a decent job protecting the public interest. You left out these key quotes from the press release:

    “The good news is that Illinois and the City of Chicago have done a decent job of implementing protections for the public in these contracts,” said Meiffren.

    “We are lucky that Illinois hasn’t yet seen the controversy and lawsuits over red-light cameras found in states like Missouri and Texas. But looking at the growth of this industry around the country, we want to learn from problems elsewhere to prevent them in Illinois,” said Meiffren.

    I still agree with their recommendations though. But don't confuse the contract with the tool. These are a valuable tool for making our streets safer, but we do need to ensure any contracts maintain our government's power to protect the public's best interest -- so the city doesn't end up with its hands tied like with the parking meter deal. Locations should be selected based on safety, and revenue should be reinvested into infrastructure improvements that will make our streets safer and make cameras less necessary.