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

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.

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
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.

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