Here’s Looking at You, Kidwell: The Tribune’s Anti-Traffic Cam Reporter Has Left the Paper

David Kidwell. Image: YouTube
David Kidwell. Image: YouTube

Investigative reporter David Kidwell recently left the staff of the Chicago Tribune and will be joining The Better Government Association later this month as special projects editor. During his tenure at the Tribune, Kidwell wrote extensively about the city’s automatic traffic enforcement program. Some of his coverage of traffic camera issues was constructive and helped lead to important reforms.

However, while red light and speed cameras have been proven to save lives in cities across the country and around the world, and a Northwestern University study released last month found that Chicago’s red light cameras have significantly reduced injury crashes, much of Kidwell’s writing seemed to betray a personal bias against the cams. By downplaying the safety benefits of automated enforcement while consistently portraying them as an unfair imposition on drivers, Kidwell fanned the flames of opposition to the cams, technology that is doing its job to prevent serious injuries and deaths.

First, let’s acknowledge that Kidwell did a major service for our city by exposing the bribery scheme involving former camera vendor RedFlex and former Chicago Department of Transportation official John Bills that took place during the Richard M. Daley administration. He also deserves credit for exposing unexplained spikes in ticketing at some red light cameras, which put pressure on CDOT to be more vigilant about watching out for such irregularities in the future and immediately addressing these kind of issues as they emerge.

The Tribune also reported on the fact that at one point the city quietly changed its ticketing standard to allow red light citations to be issued after yellow lights that were a microsecond below 3.0 seconds, which was legal under state law, but should have been done with more transparency. This kind of watchdog reporting helped push the city to make some positive changes to its automatic enforcement program. (The Northwestern report has spurred some other tweaks.)

But in several cases, Kidwell misrepresented the facts about red light and speed cameras, in an apparent vendetta against automated enforcement that was counterproductive to the cause of public safety. Most egregiously, in late 2014 Kidwell and fellow Tribune reporter Alex Richards ran a long front-page story that proclaimed “Chicago red light cameras provide few safety benefits,” according to a study commissioned by the paper. They emphasisized that the study “concluded the cameras do not reduce injury-related crashes overall.”

But buried 2,000-words into the article was an acknowledgement the existence of an earlier Federal Highway Administration report that actually debunks the whole premise behind the Tribune’s analysis. Both the Tribune and FHWA studies found that red light cameras tend to prevent “T-bone” crashes with injuries, while rear-end injury crashes increase.

But since the FHWA also acknowledged that right-angle crashes are more severe and impose higher costs on society than rear-end crashes, it found that even with increases in one crash type, the benefits of red light cameras outweigh the costs, stating, “This is why looking… just at changes in total crash numbers is not correct.”

The Tribune failed to note this basic conclusion that upends the paper’s own methodology. In effect, Kidwell and Richards ignored the most important factor – the number of people killed and the severity of injuries sustained at intersections with red light cameras. Read Streetsblog’s full analysis of why the Tribune cover story was “garbage journalism” here.

In another cover story around that time, Kidwell promoted the idea that there was a safety crisis posed by Chicago using “risky” and “too short” 3-second yellow light signal timing at red light camera intersections. This was despite the fact that over 3,000 stoplights across the city have had this timing for at least 30 years.

While the Tribune provided a roundup of how different cities time yellow lights, the real takeaway was that there’s no single rule or national standard for ideal signal timing (In fact, there are even competing definitive guidebooks.) Read more on that issue here.

In late 2015, Kidwell apparently decided he hadn’t given a fair share of abuse to the city’s speed camera program, so he and reporter Abraham Epton went nuclear on the speed cams with a series of four mind-numbingly detailed articles, covering the better part of eight pieces of newsprint. They quoted a dozen or so drivers who complained that the tickets they received for speeding near parks and schools were unfair because they were issued while the parks were closed, children weren’t present in school zones, or warning signs were missing, contrary to state law and city ordinance.

None of the drivers who cried foul in the Trib‘s story claimed they weren’t speeding. And since Chicago only issues speed cam tickets to motorists going ten mph or more over the limit, we know all of the people who were ticketed in 30 mph zones were driving dangerously fast. Studies show that while people struck at 30 usually survive, those struck at 40 almost always die. Legal technicalities aside, those drivers deserved fines.

The reporters also played up the fact that, while the speed cams, which can only be installed in “Safety Zones” within an eighth-mile of parks and schools, were pitched by Mayor Emanuel as a strategy to protect children, the cameras issuing the most tickets were located on arterials where children are unlikely to be struck. While its true that the mayor’s “think of the children” argument may have been less than candid, the speed cameras have typically been installed in some of the city’s highest-crash corridors, where they’re improving safety for all road users, not just youngsters. Read more on the issue here.

So while we thank Kidwell for his more constructive reporting on Chicago’s red light camera program and wish him well in his new job, we can’t say we’re sad to see him leave the Tribune. Hopefully the paper’s future coverage will acknowledge the many studies that show that show that properly administered traffic cam programs save lives, and will be less biased by a reporter’s personal distaste for holding dangerous drivers accountable.

  • Runthered

    I think you’re a bit jealous of the fact that he is a real journalist, and you are a blogger. Thank God for the work that he did. Chicago’s automated enforcement has been nothing but corrupt. It was built on bribes. There was never any thought of safety. It’s been all about money, money, money. Did he also report on the speed cameras that issue tickets to parked cars? Do you think that’s OK? Do you think it’s OK that the city skirts the law, and Sons tickets to people who shouldn’t get tickets? Again, thanks to him, the crooks are going to jail.

  • Anne A

    Well done. Thank you!

  • The Tribune knew their audience, which didn’t give a damn about government corruption, but did give a damn if their personal ability to speed whenever they felt like it was impeded in any way.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    I am 100% for red light cameras and for speed cameras too. These technologies represent fair, objective, automated, efficient enforcement. The safety benefits are well-established. The only real arguments against these cameras are basically: “I want to be able to run red lights without receiving a ticket and I want others to be able to too,” and “I want to be able to speed without receiving a ticket and I want others to be able to too.”

    That said, the fact that “there’s currently no national agreement on what the standard [for the duration of yellow lights] should be, and there’s no indication that Chicago’s current yellow light timing is unsafe” does NOT represent a sound argument against increasing the yellow light duration from 3 to 3.5 seconds. Similar to the situation with climate change, the LARGE MAJORITY of engineers around the country and the large majority of jurisdictions around the county have yellow light durations longer than 3 seconds. Why not follow suit here in Chicago? The only real argument against doing so, which I can think of, is: “We don’t want to slow automobile throughput.” That very old, out-of-date automobile-centric argument is NOT valid in a multimodal, urban environment like Chicago. Nor is it consistent or in keeping with the Complete Streets policy / approach that the City and CDOT have adopted, which (generally and in most locations/situations) prioritizes pedestrians and bicyclists (and transit service/users, which includes of course pedestrians) OVER automobile travel. Why? Because they (peds and bikes) are the most vulnerable roadway users. The idea is the same as the spirit behind Vision Zero, which the City has also officially adopted — namely, the goal of reducing fatalities. In my opinion, Chicago should have red light and speed cameras almost everywhere (not just school/park zones), and should ALSO increase yellow light duration to 3.25 or 3.5 seconds! Why not, I ask?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    From the earlier Streetsblog post on the yellow light issue:

    “True, some recent engineering guidance recommends that cities assume that drivers are usually speeding when approaching traffic signals, and such formulas find Chicago’s yellow signals to be on the short side. For example, Institute of Transportation Engineers’ formula recommends that for situations like a citywide standard (where actual travel speeds can’t be observed), adding 7 mph to the speed limit across the board — thus assuming that drivers citywide are traveling at 37 mph.

    Moving forward with that assumption would endorse and enable speeding, which is a far cry from the Chicago Department of Transportation’s recent push to eliminate all fatalities from our streets. David Zavattero is head of traffic safety programs at CDOT, and oversees the red light camera program. He said that Chicago uses a three second yellow light because “we don’t believe it is a safe environment to be [in], basing your signal timing on a 40 mph vehicle traveling through the intersection.” Plus, Chicago’s citywide three second phase has a long history: The federal government’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices first recommended a three second minimum back in 1935, and continues to do so today.”

  • ChicagoCyclist

    Thanks for responding. There are MUCH better ways to reduce speeding than sticking to a 3 second yellow. In fact, the duration of the yellow ball does not directly impact speeding (i.e. it is not, in and of itself, a ‘countermeasure’ to speeding.) As for that masterpiece of systematic, logical, and creative thinking, the great MUTCD (and I’m not being ironic), I must say that the fact is, the 2009 edition, which broke new ground for including bicycle and pedestrian travel, is itself already out-of-date and currently under revision to better serve bicyclists and pedestrians. Goodness knows, I’ve never looked at the 1935 edition :). I’d say that the long history of roadway engineering and operations practice / standards / guidance (which are thoroughly automobile-centric) is exactly what we are fighting against! Mr. Zavattero’s explanation just doesn’t make sense to me. If we have more red light and speeding cameras, then this — i.e. enforcement — will deter speeding and red light running, regardless of the yellow duration. Especially if this enforcement is combined with roads purposefully designed to keep cars traveling at or under the speed limits, which in urban areas should never be more than 30, and ideally should be around 20 mph.

  • JimmyJam

    You misrepresent facts and delete comments you don’t agree with all of the time. Kidwell was a reporter for a reputable newspaper. Until you are on the same level playing field, you shouldn’t criticize. Your continued support of a program built on bribes and rife with corruption, as well a speed camera program that tickets parked cars shows how ignorant you are.

  • STOP

    Stop deleting comments – what is wrong with you???

  • Run the Light

    What, Melissa? You don’t think people care about corruption? I speed, and will continue to speed, regardless if there are cameras (I can easily hit the brakes for a few seconds) or what the speed limit is. You’re a complete disaster. Watch out lady!

  • Run the light

    He was a great reporter! Perhaps you should stop criticizing and deleting comments from people who don’t agree with you. He worked to expose one of the biggest corruptions in Chicago history. He exposed the FACT that the cameras were ticketing parked cars. And that loser Scott Kubly just said “oh well”. Do you think he’s a bad person? Why don’t you look in the mirror for once and realize that YOU don’t report FACTS. YOU push YOUR agenda and don’t like it when people disagree with you. You’re nothing but a big cry baby. When’s the next beg-athon? Donate money or the site will be shut down. I don’t know how you sleep at night. But I’m sure he sleeps well, know that he’s doing a service for the people of Chicago. You, on the other hand, are the one who doesn’t know what journalism is.

  • Jason

    You’re a coward! Grow up!

  • ChicagoCyclist

    Please see the “Conclusion: Going Forward” chapter of this new study on Red Light Cameras in Chicago: http://www.transportation.northwestern.edu/docs/research/RLC-Report-Web.pdf

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The Chicago Tribune’s David Kidwell and his colleagues have written extensively about the city’s red light camera program. Some of that reporting has been constructive, including revelations about the red light cam bribery scandal, unexplained spikes in ticketing, and cameras that were installed in low-crash locations during the Richard M. Daley administration. Other aspects of the […]