The Chicago Sun-Times Hops on the Anti-Cam Bandwagon

A red light camera location in Melrose Park. Image: Google Street View
A red light camera location in Melrose Park. Image: Google Street View

After the Chicago Tribune’s star anti-traffic camera reporter David Kidwell left the paper last month somebody had to take up the slack, right? Sun-Times writers Dan Mihalopoulos and Mitchell Armentrout made a valiant effort to do so with yesterday’s exposé on automated enforcement in the ‘burbs, “Red-light cameras reap suburbs millions.” Like the worst of Kidwell’s reporting, the article virtually ignores the proven safety benefits of traffic cams while portraying them as an unjust imposition on drivers.

Before we unpack the Sun-Times piece, it’s necessary to acknowledge that the mainstream press has an important role to play as a watchdog to help ensure that automated enforcement programs are administered properly. Kidwell did Chicagoans a major service by exposing the RedFlex bribery scandal, as well as uncovering some irregularities with camera operations, which forced the city to address these issues. (A Northwestern University study on Chicago’s traffic cam program released in March has spurred some other tweaks.)

But Kidwell generally disregarded the numerous studies from around the country and the world that prove that red light and speed cameras save lives. Worse, in some cases he spun the data on Chicago’s traffic cameras to make the false claim that that they “provide few safety benefits,” and that our three-second yellow lights are “risky” and “too short.” These arguments were thoroughly debunked in previous Streetsblog posts by Steven Vance and Payton Chung. And let’s not even get started on the Trib’s spurious assault on the speed cam program, which took up the better part of eight full pages of newsprint. In short, much of Kidwell’s coverage did far more harm than good.

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Dan Mihalopoulos and Mitchell Armentrout

Not to be outdone, the Sun-Times’ Mihalopoulos and Armentrout used a relentless onslaught of Freedom of Information Act requests to make the case that suburban red light cameras are picking the pockets of innocent, law-abiding drivers to fill village coffers. (In fairness, those guys have awesome last names for a Woodward and Bernstein-style investigative duo.)

In collaboration with ABC7 Chicago’s I-Team, by submitting scores of FOIA requests to suburban municipalities, the reporters found that red light cameras in 86 Chicago suburbs issued almost $67 million worth of tickets in 2016. “And the Sun-Times/ABC7 analysis of those documents shows suburban red-light revenues are rising sharply every year, as more and more local governments install cameras at intersections,” article stated. “The total collected from cameras in the suburbs increased almost 50 percent between 2014 and 2016.” In other words — newsflash — as more cameras are installed, more tickets are issued to drivers who blow red lights.

The piece spends plenty of column inches discussing the fact that red light cams operated by local vendor SafeSpeed have tended to issue more tickets than those operated by rival company RedSpeed. If there are discrepancies in ticketing, that’s certainly an issue worth investigating.

Less commendable is the article’s fixation with a small number of cases where drivers may have been improperly ticketed. The reporters detail three cases in which drivers contested tickets issued for failing to come to a complete stop before making a right on red, and reviews of video footage revealed that they did stop. They also noted that a high proportion of red light tickets issued in the suburbs are for right-on-red violations.

Officials who administer traffic cameras have a responsibility to ensure that the equipment is functioning properly and, in these three cases it appears the cameras made errors. Drivers who come to a complete stop before turning, as dictated by the law, shouldn’t have to waste time defending themselves in traffic court, so it’s possible that a better ticket review process was needed in these cases.

On the other hand, this issue could be completely eliminated by banning right turns on red, which really shouldn’t be legal anyway. Pedestrians who are crossing the street in a crosswalk with a walk signal shouldn’t have to worry about whether they’re going to be killed by a turning driver who fails to yield.

The Tribune's own study found that Chicago's red light cameras reduced the incidence of T-bone crashes, the deadliest kind, by 15 percent. Photo: Wikipedia
The Tribune’s own study found that Chicago’s red light cameras reduced the incidence of T-bone crashes, the deadliest kind, by 15 percent. Photo: Wikipedia

Mihalopoulos and Armentrout’s article gives plenty of airtime to Mark Wallace, the local radio-show host who is the area’s leading anti-traffic camera activist. Predictably, he argues that the suburban enforcement programs are unfair. But you know who the reporters didn’t bother to interview? Any of the dozens of national traffic safety experts who would have told them that properly administered traffic cam programs save lives.

Closer to home, the reporters could have just called up the Northwestern researchers, who’d have explained that Chicago’s red light cams have resulted in an overall ten-percent drop in injury crashes, as well as a “spillover effect” that is resulting in less red light running at intersections that don’t have the cams.

But I suppose that’s not the sort of material that sells newspapers, unlike articles that imply that drivers are being victimized by greedy government officials.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    Here is the article’s key point: “But you know who the reporters didn’t bother to interview? Any of the
    dozens of national traffic safety experts who would have told them that
    properly administered traffic cam programs save lives.” How on earth can the Sun Times journalists claim to have done a thorough investigation, to know what the **** they are talking about, think that their theses/conclusions could have any credibility, if they did not educate themselves on the ‘heart’ of this issue? Their approach is akin to science or climate change deniers, who express their opinions without consulting (seriously and objectively) the folks who study/practice/work for a living in this field know.

  • Jacob Wilson

    Hit the nail right on the head with the last paragraph. Americans now think of the concept government as an ‘other’ rather than something that serves the collective needs of the community. The neo-liberal media and private interest that own it are shameful in their exploitation of this fact.

  • Jeremy

    +1 to you for pointing out the owners of media. This is intentional in an attempt to corporatize our lives. I think of that whenever I read about local SSAs and residents hiring private security companies to conduct patrols of neighborhoods. Obviously this has already happened to schools, prisons, hospitals, etc. Now Uber, Lyft, and others are doing it to transit.

  • susmart3

    If you follow the red light scandals nationwide, you’ll find that officials are using them to fleece their citizens. Had it only been about “safety,” there would have been no need to bribe officials, electronically rig the system to increase fines and the endless corruption and ensuing coverups.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    See the above mention of the RedFlex scandal. Nah, municipalities generally aren’t installing red light cams only for safety. But properly administered traffic cam programs reduce crashes, injuries, and fatalities, as well as generate revenue for cash-strapped cities. That’s a win-win.

  • susmart3

    “Properly administrated” programs could do all sorts of good. But in Chicago we can’t seem to stop shootings, punish rogue police officers, fund the school, or much of anything. And not much has changed since the original Daley administration.

  • Peter

    “…our three-second yellow lights are “risky” and “too short.” These arguments were thoroughly debunked in previous Streetsblog posts by Steven Vance and Payton Chung”

    The listed NU study in the previous streetsblog posts does not agree with Vance and Chung, as cited by Greenfield.
    http://www.transportation.northwestern.edu/docs/research/RLC-Report-Web.pdf

    citation 1. Variations in the yellow phase, and unreasonably short yellows, were perceived as unfair to drivers, an entrapment strategy. Some respondents were aware of the favorable crash reduction effects of a longer yellow phase and suggested increasing it to 4 seconds city-wide.

    citation 2. The effect of the dilemma zone is evidenced by the significant reduction in violations when the yellow interval is 4 sec compared to 3 sec… The detailed analysis conducted in this study suggests that an enforcement threshold of 0.3 or 0.4 sec (instead
    of the current 0.1 sec) would be appropriate.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    I am 100% for red light cameras and for speed cameras too. These
    technologies represent fair, objective, automated, efficient
    enforcement! The only real argument against these cameras is: “I want
    to be able to run red lights without receiving a ticket and want others
    to be able to too.” and “I want to be able to speed without receiving a
    ticket and want others to be able to too.” That said, the fact —
    admittedly true — that (as the article puts it) “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! Just like 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, that 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 vulnerable roadway users. The idea is the same as the spirit behind Vision Zero, which the City has also
    officially adopted — that is, the goal of reducing fatalities! Chicago should have red light and speed cameras almost everywhere and should ALSO increase
    yellow light duration to 3.25 or 3.5 seconds!

  • Robert Stoll

    Please. These cameras are nothing more than a tax on the poor. They should be banned from the city and state as a goodwill measure to show citizens that our politicians are not singularly programmed to raid our wallets at every opportunity.

  • Robert Stoll

    Those “experts” have been proven to be bought and sold every which way by Sunday. So they have only themselves to blame for not having any credibility.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    We’re on the same page when it comes to traffic fines disproportionately impacting poor people. The solution is income-based fines, which is what they’re already doing in several European countries. https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/traffic-fines-regressive-fees-solution/Content?oid=23730503

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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 […]