Speed Cameras

Chicago Officials Pretend to Be Puzzled at Traffic Cameras Sending Out Undeserved Tickets


Using red lights to fight red ink
Credit: Skakerman / photo on flickr

Chicago Tribune reporters David Kidwell and Alex Richards have put together a massive investigation documenting huge problems causing the city's red light cameras to send out thousands of tickets to innocent drivers. Today they report that after a bunch of cameras stopped giving out any tickets for a couple of days (suggesting possible downtime and perhaps some sort of fiddling), they suddenly went berserk, giving out dozens of tickets a day:

Cameras that for years generated just a few tickets daily suddenly caught dozens of drivers a day. One camera near the United Center rocketed from generating one ticket per day to 56 per day for a two-week period last summer before mysteriously dropping back to normal.

Tickets for so-called rolling right turns on red shot up during some of the most dramatic spikes, suggesting an unannounced change in enforcement. One North Side camera generated only a dozen tickets for rolling rights out of 100 total tickets in the entire second half of 2011. Then, over a 12-day spike, it spewed 563 tickets — 560 of them for rolling rights.

Many of the spikes were marked by periods immediately before or after when no tickets were issued — downtimes suggesting human intervention that should have been documented. City officials said they cannot explain the absence of such records.

City officials seem to be unable to explain anything at all, even as traffic courts buck typical behavior and have reversed nearly half the tickets appealed from one such spike. Transportation officials claim they didn't even know it was happening until the reporters told them.

Oh, also of note: The company (which is supposed to inform the city of any such spikes) and the city's program are under federal investigation for corruption. The company, Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., is accused of bribing a city official to the tune of millions in order to land the contract. The Chicago Tribune reported last year how the controversy caused Mayor Rahm Emanuel to disqualify Redflex from a new contract putting up speed cameras near schools and parks to increase revenue safety.

The Tribune notes that these traffic cameras have generated nearly $500 million in revenue since the program began in 2003, yet everybody in the lengthy story seems to dance around the idea that the city or Redflex could have any sort of incentive to make alterations to cause the system to suddenly start spitting out tickets. Chicago's CBS affiliate noted last fall that the city's budget for 2014 relied on revenue from its red light cameras (and the highest cigarette taxes in the nation) for revenue in order to balance.

(Hat tip to John Tillman of the Illinois Policy Institute)