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Editorial: Speed cameras need thorough review

A protest against red light/speed cameras at the intersection of Kostner and Ogden on Aug. 2, 2014 | Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

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With every new report of abuses in Chicago’s city red-light and speed camera program, we become more convinced City Hall’s primary aim is not to improve public safety, but to rake in money.

This is a program that begs for a complete and independent review — one that even camera opponents would accept as unbiased, as we have said before. On Wednesday, City Hall told us it is too soon to do independent study on speed cameras, but every drip of bad news tells us it’s not too early, but rather overdue.

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On Wednesday, the Chicago Tribune reported the city has issued more than $2.4 million in fines to motorists when the cameras were supposed to be off or when warning signs were confusing, obscured or missing. Also, motorists have been unfairly ticketed near schools without evidence that schoolchildren were present, a legal no-no. Since the Trib’s investigation began, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration has busily been vacating nearly $1 million in tickets — citations that shouldn’t have been handed out in the first place.

Can City Hall say with a straight face that this rain of bogus tickets would pour down in a system run only with public safety in mind?

Drivers, best we can tell, don’t trust the city’s red-light and speed camera program. They feel the watchful eye of all those cameras, more all the time, and wonder how many are really necessary. The cameras have hauled in more than a half-billion dollars for the city since 2002.

A city analysis of Illinois Department of Transportation data indicates crashes were down 18 percent in speed camera zones from 2012 to 2014 compared with a 4 percent citywide drop.

But drivers have reason to be wary.

  • In 2013, the Tribune reported that the city had shortened the duration of yellow lights, making it easier to hand out tickets for running red lights.
  • In 2014, we learned of unexplained ticket surges — tickets by the thousands — by some cameras.
  • A federal study plus others in Florida, California, Virginia and Illinois show red light cameras, although they can reduce right-angle crashes, cause more rear-end collisions, casting doubt on the public-safety value of the cameras.
  • And then there was that $2 million bribery scheme involving the program’s private contractor, Redflex Traffic Systems. The city has sued Redflex for more than $300 million.

City Hall should commission a study of speed cameras by independent researchers. Internal reviews are not enough when everyone knows the city desperately needs more revenue.

Are all those cameras looking at our speedometers or our wallets?

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