Chicago’s Scandal-Ridden Red Light Camera Program To Lose $17M

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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Chicago’s annual revenue haul could be millions lighter this year after officials decided to give drivers a longer grace period before getting hit with a $100 red light camera ticket.

The city’s change is based on a report from Northwestern University’s Transportation Center, which encouraged the city to increase the so-called “enforcement threshold” to 0.3 seconds from 0.1 seconds after the light turns red. Department of Transportation officials say the longer grace period–effective immediately–will reduce the number of red light violations by 29 percent and cut revenue by $17 million, the Chicago Tribune reported Tuesday.

Chicago paid $300,000 for the Northwestern study, which found the city’s red light cameras force drivers into a “dilemma zone” where they have to make snap decisions about whether to stop or speed through the intersection. The report’s authors claim the extended enforcement period will not affect traffic safety.

Chicago’s red light camera program has been plagued by scandal from its inception. City transportation insider John Bills, who ran the program from 2003 to 2011, was convicted last year in a massive federal fraud and bribery case for for illegally directing millions of dollars in contracts to Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., the city’s exclusive red light camera provider. Redflex CEO Karen Finley later pleaded guilty to bribery charges and was sentenced in November to a two-and-a-half year prison term.

Before the scandal was exposed by the Tribune, Chicago’s red light camera program had grown to be the largest in the nation, with a total of $600 million in fines collected by the end of 2015.

The program’s corruption and graft were in keeping with Chicago’s image as a city where clout rules, but they weren’t its only shortcomings. A study by Texas A&M University and commissioned by the Chicago Tribune found nearly half the cameras installed under Bills’ management were placed at intersections that saw relatively few crashes. The report also showed that rear-end collisions at those intersections rose 22 percent because of the cameras, giving lie to the city’s claims that red light cameras were primarily about traffic safety, not revenue generation.

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Will Racke