Speed Cameras

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

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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)

NEXT: Police Play NSA: Warrantless Data Collection the New Normal? Don't Cops Have Better Things to Do?!

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  1. The company, Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., is accused of bribing a city official to the tune of millions in order to land the contract.

    So, Chicago…

  2. Why are you arguing? The science is settled!

  3. Libertarians just want children to die in the intersections. It helps them achieve their goal of fewer poor children.

    1. I thought we wanted poor parents to die so we’d have a steady supply of orphans?

      1. Sorry, I’m mixing my messages. I’ll go back and read the memo again.

        1. Well they should be looking both ways if they don’t want to get run over.

  4. “Transportation officials claim they didn’t even know it was happening until the reporters told them.”

    So they are former Obama Administration officials?

    1. Can we just summarily fire and permanently exile anyone who uses this excuse?

      1. What – tarring and feathering is out of vogue?

        When did THAT happen?

        1. Bout the same time that excuse became popular.

          *rubs chin*

    2. Where do you think he learned the trick?

    3. I’ve received two of these in the city, and it sounds like I screwed up by paying the second one. Problem was, on the first one I knew I blew the light and I was just wondering if I got caught so when the evidence arrived I paid up. The second one, I honestly didn’t remember doing it but I had been on that street and through that intersection roughly matching the time of their photo evidence, so I assumed they were right like they were on the first one and I paid the ticket.

      You know, when a credit card company or bank does something like this the politicians thunder, there’s a class action suit, a 5 year trial, a negotiated settlement and then us little people get a small amount of cash back. When a government does this, the above process stops right after step 1.

      1. I doubt the politicians will even thunder.

  5. I’m sure it’s all just a misunderstanding. I mean, it’s Chicago – nothing corrput ever happens there. Especially not in government.

    Seriously, if Chicago isn’t the # 1 most governmentally corrupt city in the US, it’s in the top three (along with the entire state of NJ).

    1. I don’t think even Chicago can top Nwalins

    2. Top corrupt city governments (IMO and no particular order)

      Chicago
      New York City
      Detroit
      Los Angeles
      Baltimore
      San Fransisco

      Hell, *any* municipality with more than 7.5 million people is corrupt as fuck.

      And the ones with fewer people are only somewhat corrupt as fuck.

      1. I think of these places as laboratories where politicians do experiments to see how much corruption people will put up with.

        The Obama administration is scaling up Chicago findings to advanced pilot plant scale.

  6. The Tribune notes that these traffic cameras have generated nearly $500 million in revenue since the program began in 2003

    So they’re revenue machines? Huh. I thought their stated and intended purpose was to stop people from running red lights.

    1. The safety thing is a fringe benefit.

      1. So fringe that they actually cause an increase in collisions.

  7. I blame 1337 HaX0rz!

  8. I liked hearing about the high school kids who Photoshopped pictures of the license plates of unpopular administrators/teachers.

    Then, found a kid with a similar car, pasted the picture over the real plate, and ran a bunch of red lights with traffic cameras.

    Hilarity ensued…

    1. I read that as “Hitler ensued.”

      Sorry for Godwinning the thread in my mind.

      1. You, sir, are WORSE than Hitler.

        1. But not worse than Nicole.

          1. Who is in Chicago, so clearly all this is her fault.

  9. Hmm…totally perverse incentives surround these things. What could possibly go wrong?

    It’s fascinating how the instant you create a robotic tax collector, the government goes hog wild with it. It’s almost as if the only thing holding them back from stealing even more from us before was lack of manpower.

    1. Cameras have no shame

    2. Actually, it’s the delegation of blame to a third party that enables the behavior. Bureaucrats only get fired when they seriously fuck up, so they end up being risk averse. The capability to assign blame to a machine is an enabler.

      1. Not just a machine – A *third party* machine operator.

        That gives them enough clearance to declare, with a straight face, that they didn’t know what was going on. As if you simply contract a service out and then never have to follow-up on what the contractor is doing. I mean, that’s *certainly* not a function of a fiscally responsible government, right?

        1. Hell no, that would be rocking the boat.

  10. *SLAP*

    All of you, since I was late to the party.

    Happy Slap-Ass Friday, slappies! Fuck the government of anywhere!

  11. I’ll tell this story ONE LAST time, for those who haven’t heard it.

    Guy I worked with was stationed in Germany. Day befor he was scheduled to leave, he got a ticket in the mail with a picture showing him in his car and the speed he was clocked at…

    He mailed them back a picture of the sum of money specified in the citation.

    1. And now he’s on the Interpol watchlist

    2. That’s excellent.

    3. Meh. If I know I’m not going to make the light and and there’s a camera, I just duck my face down. Works everytime. Accidents? No, if course not. I’m a responsible driver.

    4. Let me guess, the Germans mailed him a picture of handcuffs? Right?

      Dude’s lying through his teeth – its an old story.

      1. He showed me the picture he sent.

  12. I don’t understand why these things don’t “break down” more often than they do.

    1. I think in England they started setting up cameras to watch the traffic cameras in some places, to see who was applying ‘adjustment via cricket bat’.

      Still things we can learn from the old country…

      1. The Brits really do seem to have a knack for hooliganism.

      2. Obviously agents of The Sleeper trying to weaken our response to CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN when it manifests.

  13. “But…we needed the money! What do you expect? It was either this, or raise taxes! We were going to get the money from somewhere! What would you rather we do – get the money from people who didn’t pause for long enough before turning right on red, or raise the sales tax? It was one or the other! Why did these reporters have to investigate? Why couldn’t they just leave well enough alone? This is THEIR fault! THEY’RE the ones you should be mad at! Because of them, we’re going to have to raise taxes! It’s not like it’s possible to cut any spending! Why did they have to teach the ticketed drivers to rebel? It would have worked out fine! Those reporters – THEY’RE the ones who should be destroyed!”

    – Dr. Robert Stadler, chief engineer on the red light robot camera project, July 2014

      1. I think the key to mimicking her dialogue style for villains is to get the right ratio of “questions in a panicky, pleading tone” to “emphatic groundless declarations ending in an exclamation point”.

        1. And it needs to run on for at least three pages.

          1. Well, the hero’s ramblings are 63 pages, so…

    1. And so Skynet begins.

    2. Clap clap clap

  14. Wanna bet that the owners of Redflex Traffic Systems are not connected to the Koch brothers? Any of you have access to Sec. of State records and license to do business in Illinois?

    1. They’re Australian.

      1. That explains the outright bribe instead of a campaign contribution.

  15. oday 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:

    Tulpa is very aroused. Once everyone has a robot minder punishing them for every mis-step 24/7, Tulpaworld will be complete.

    The law is the law, you filthy anarchists.

  16. 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.

    Holy shit, I totally got one of these. In the exact right time period, for a legal right on red.

  17. Unless these cameras are capturing video, I don’t see how they prove anything. They probably show someone’s car making a right on red turn. Given a photo, how exactly do we know the driver didn’t stop at the red light and is making a legal turn? Even if the camera is capturing motion/no motion, how is it to distinguish from something else moving in its view like a bird, insect, pedestrian, or blowing litter?

    If I got one of these tickets, I’d say I stopped at the light and make a legal right on red turn. And the photo just shows it. A photo cannot show you running a red light, because it cannot determine when you entered the intersection, just that you are in it when the light is red (which is not illegal).

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