Red-light and speed cameras should be employed only where they demonstrably improve public safety.
That’s an entirely sensible position, and it was pretty much the stance mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia took until he changed his mind Thursday and promised he’d pull out the red-light cameras in his first day in office.
We think Garcia, who voted for a red-light camera as a county commissioner, had it right before Thursday. The overriding criteria for the cameras should be public safety, not the revenue they bring in. But if data show certain cameras capture dangerous motorists flagrantly blowing through red lights or barreling along far over the speed limit near schools or parks, the cameras are providing a service.
The red-light cameras, brought to Chicago in 2003 by former Mayor Richard M. Daley, long have been controversial. Motorists complain they are unfairly ticketed because yellow lights are too short. The former vendor Redflex Traffic Systems was axed in 2013 amid allegations of a $2 billion bribery scandal. Aldermen have said speed camera zones should be more clearly marked.
Moreover, a Chicago Tribune investigation raised doubts about unexplained ticketing spikes by some cameras. A Tribune-commissioned study found a 15 percent reduction of “T-bone” crashes with injuries at red-light intersections were offset by a 22 percent increase in rear-end crashes with injuries. An audit showed that the city couldn’t prove red-light cameras were situated at only the most dangerous intersections.
With his slow pace in reforming the red-light devices, Mayor Rahm Emanuel certainly was in no danger of being snapped by one of his speed cameras. And it was he, not Daley, who added the cameras that catch speeders.
The cameras, particularly the red-light variety, have become a hot political issue. None of the aldermanic candidates in the 18 wards that appear headed for a runoff in the April 7 election is an enthusiastic supporter.
Even those who think the cameras can play a useful role said in questionnaires supplied to the Sun-Times that the cameras shouldn’t be used to raise revenue and that the program needs stricter oversight. For example, 11th ward candidate Patrick Daley Thompson says the program “needs to be administered with public safety as the No. 1 priority.”
Many other candidates, though, want them pulled out altogether, saying the devices are just a money grab. For example, 15th Ward candidate Rafael Yanez complains the cameras are being used to turn Chicago streets into toll roads.
In fairness, the candidates who want the cameras pulled out should explain how they proposed to replace the nearly $70 million in revenue the cameras bring in.
Changes in the camera program are underway.
Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed reported recently that Emanuel has green-lighted countdown timers that will alert drivers and pedestrians how much time remains before a light turns red. Such timers already are at 132 red-light camera intersections, and they will be added to the remaining 42.
Also, some aldermen are proposing that the city consult local communities before installing or removing red-light cameras.
If red-light and speed cameras don’t have the trust of law-abiding motorists, the program is not being administered properly. Whoever is the next mayor should ensure Chicago streets are as safe – and as fair to motorists – as possible.