A red light camera in Chicago.

Let’s green-light red light camera reforms

Nobody has done a poll, far as we know, but it’s probably fair to say Chicagoans by and large do not trust the city’s red-light camera program.


Drivers suspect the city is more interested in their wallets than in their safety, and there is evidence compiled by the Chicago Tribune that while the cameras have reduced the number of right-angle crashes, they have increased the number of rear-end crashes.

Now two Chicago aldermen have come forward with several smart reforms to the red-light camera program. The changes they propose could make the program more effective, reducing the number of crashes of all kinds, and give skeptical Chicagoans reason to believe the whole thing isn’t just a moneymaker.

We urge Mayor Rahm Emanuel to go for it.

The biggest improvement aldermen Anthony Beale (9th) and Tom Tunney (44th) propose is to install countdown signals at red-light intersections, which would be expensive. It would cost $15,000 to $45,000 per corner. But as Beale argued Wednesday when he and Tunney introduced the ordinance, if the aim of the cameras is to improve safety — and not just to rake in money from $100 tickets to shore up the city’s budget — the expense is not prohibitive. Since 2002, the city’s 352 cameras have raised more than $500 million.

Tunney, we should mention, is being hammered by an opponent in the 44th Ward aldermanic race, Scott Davis, for doing little, until now, to address the problems of red-light cameras.

Beale and Tunney propose that yellow lights be “no less than 3.2 seconds or the recognized national standards, plus one additional second, whichever is greater.” The intent here, obviously, is to give drivers sufficient time to get through an intersection before the light turns red, so they will be less inclined to slam on the brakes for fear of the camera — the reason for the reported increase in rear-end crashes. That’s also an intriguing idea, though it needs to be examined by traffic experts.

Best of all, the city would be required to conduct a study estimating the safety impact each time it installs a new camera, hold a public hearing in the affected community and obtain City Council approval.

Our own final suggestion, which we offered back in December, would be that City Hall commission a study by independent researchers of the entire red-light camera program. Let’s find out, finally, just how much it has improved safety. Internal reviews are not enough. The city’s desperate need for more revenue makes it difficult to trust the conclusions of in-house studies.

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