Northwestern University will be paid $311,778 to study red-light camera enforcement and chart a path forward for a despised program built on a $2 million bribery scandal that paid a convicted bureaucrat $1,500 for every additional intersection.
Last year, the Chicago Department of Transportation promised to engage a team of academics with expertise in traffic engineering and traffic safety to conduct a “comprehensive review” of the red-light camera program after examining “best practices” across the nation to determine criteria for future removal and placement of cameras.
The contract calls for Northwestern to take the lead on a review that also will include traffic-safety experts from Texas A&M and Florida State Universities.
Last week, the former CDOT managing deputy who oversaw the red-light camera program was convicted of taking up to $2 million in bribes from Arizona-based Redflex Traffic Systems.
During the trial that lifted the veil on a red-light camera program built on bribes — not public safety — federal prosecutors proved that John Bills was getting a kickback of up to $2,000 for every new camera added to a network that became the largest in the nation.
Even after a 20 percent reduction, much of it ordered during last year’s heated mayoral campaign, Chicago has 306 red-light cameras at 151 intersections.
That’s the sordid backdrop for the Northwestern study, but it will not be the focus, said Hani S. Mahmassani, director of NU’s Transportation Center.
Instead, Mahmassani said he will preside over a purely technical study by traffic engineers — intersection-by-intersection — to determine whether red-light cameras installed at Chicago intersections have done the job they were supposed to do.
“We’re looking at the entire history of the program. . . . We’re not getting into any of the politics behind it. That’s not our purview. We’re taking a comprehensive look at intersection safety and the role red-light cameras have played in this based on data and evidence. Safer driver behavior. Compliance with red lights. And, of course, looking at crashes that have occurred at and around intersections that are equipped,” Mahmassani said.
“The second part of the study is to provide recommendations to the city on systematic procedures, scientific-based, that would serve as guidelines to determine where it would be best to deploy the red-light cameras and whether a particular intersection is a good candidate or not for such enforcement. That would then be the basis of shutting off or removing enforcement and, in other places, installing cameras based on the guidelines.”
Mahmassani called the study a “unique opportunity” to restore public confidence in the red-light camera program shaken by a corruption scandal of historic proportions, even by Chicago’s sordid standards.
“The inappropriate behavior of officials over the history of the program may have been a factor. But when we look at all the intersections one-by-one, we’ll be able to see where the improvements have occurred and where these have been warranted,” Mahmassani said.
He said he would not hesitate to recommend removal of “large numbers” of red-light cameras if empirical data justifies it.
After disclosing that the nation’s largest red-light camera program was built on bribery, the Chicago Tribune sponsored its own study conducted by researchers at Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute.
It concluded that Chicago’s red-light cameras were often installed at intersections where they weren’t needed, with only a handful of accidents resulting in injuries, if any accidents at all.
And superfluous cameras installed at more than 70 of those intersections actually caused an increase in rear-end crashes as motorists slammed on the brakes to avoid getting a $100 ticket.
Mahmassani said the Tribune study “had good points.” But, he said, “It’s generally known that, when you introduce red-light camera enforcement, you may experience some increase in rear-end, relatively minor crashes. Where you have reduction is the more dangerous sideswipe, right-angle crashes.”
During the 2015 mayoral campaign, Emanuel removed 50 red-light cameras at 25 more Chicago intersections where accidents have been reduced to put out a political fire that had threatened to burn him in the April 7 runoff.
Last week, the mayor made it clear that Chicago’s red-light camera program was here to stay, even though it was built on a $2 million bribery scandal.
“The corruption is about how the firm got this contract and we’ve made changes in the firm and in the operations of that contract,” the mayor said.
“It still plays a role in safety on our streets as it relates to side crashes. That data is pretty clear. But when the first questions were about the firm and how they got awarded that contract prior to my administration, we sent them out the door,” he said.
Pressed on the alleged arrangement that would pay Bills for every additional intersection where red-light cameras were installed, Emanuel said, “That’s why we’ve made changes.”
But what about removing red-light cameras from even more intersections? The mayor was asked why that isn’t being done based on state accident data.
“I don’t have the exact number, but I think the [number of] red-light camera intersections have been cut by a quarter to a third,” he said.