Red-light cameras brought in nearly $67 million last year for 86 Chicago suburbs and the companies that operate the devices, an investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times and ABC7 Chicago’s I-Team has found.
Fines collected from drivers accused of running red lights in the suburbs now far surpass the amount of money reaped by the city of Chicago’s extensive and unpopular network, the Sun-Times and ABC7 found.
Between the start of 2014 and the end of last year, cameras in the suburbs brought in a total of nearly $170 million, according to records obtained from suburban governments throughout the area.
And the Sun-Times/ABC7 analysis of those documents shows suburban red-light revenues are rising sharply every year, as more and more local governments install cameras at intersections. The total collected from cameras in the suburbs increased almost 50 percent between 2014 and 2016.
Of the 10 suburbs whose cameras rang up the highest revenue totals during the past three years, nine have contracts with SafeSpeed LLC, a Chicago company that’s a growing force in the red-light enforcement industry. From its downtown offices, SafeSpeed has built a roster of more than 20 suburban clients. Though the competing RedSpeed has deals in far more suburbs than any company, SafeSpeed operates what are by far the most lucrative cameras, the Sun-Times and ABC7 found.
In an unprecedented study of cameras across the Chicago area, reporters sent Freedom of Information Act requests to government officials in about 100 towns that have received permits for cameras from the Illinois Department of Transportation. A few communities never installed cameras, while some officials said they once had them but removed them.
But nearly 90 suburbs now have red-light cameras churning out more than 770,000 tickets a year.
No communities have benefitted financially from the cameras more than Berwyn, Melrose Park and Hillside, records show. Those suburbs collected more than $8 million each from red-light camera violators in the three years ending Dec. 31.
Berwyn and Melrose Park have contracts with both SafeSpeed and RedSpeed. But in both suburbs, SafeSpeed’s cameras account for the vast majority of the fines collected.
Other SafeSpeed clients whose cameras are bringing in large amounts include North Riverside, Lakemoor, Hillside, Country Club Hills and Skokie. These communities reported getting more than $2 million each from red-light camera tickets last year, records show.
Matteson collected more than $4 million in the first 13 months since SafeSpeed began operating five cameras at two intersections in February 2016, village records show.
Chris Lai, SafeSpeed’s chief operating officer, declined to disclose how much the company makes. The privately held company is owned by him and three other investors.
Under its deals with Chicago suburbs, the company gets nearly 40 percent of the money from tickets issued by its cameras. Records show suburbs that use SafeSpeed took in a total of more than $70 million from its red-light cameras over the past three years.
Lai says the company has been successful in luring suburbs away from its competitors because SafeSpeed is “better” and “more effective” at catching violators. In some cases, as in Skokie, the company gave municipalities the chance to try out its cameras, and officials saw they were issuing 25 percent to 30 percent more tickets than their previous red-light camera vendors, according to Lai.
Because SafeSpeed is local, its crews can quickly replace any cameras that aren’t functioning properly, maximizing revenues, he says.
SafeSpeed CEO and co-founder Nikki Zollar is a former head of the Chicago election board and was director of the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation under former Gov. Jim Edgar. She also was a trustee of Chicago State University until stepping down last month.
Zollar formed SafeSpeed with Lai and two others, Omar Maani and Khaled Maani, in 2007, after she was involved in a crash in which another driver ran a red light and T-boned her car, injuring her mother-in-law, Lai says.
He says SafeSpeed has distinguished itself with its “dedication to making sure we capture every violation.”
“We’ve very proud of what we do,” Lai says.
But some drivers who showed up to contest tickets issued by the company’s cameras say they did come to a complete stop — and, in many cases, the video evidence backs them up.
At a hearing this month in Melrose Park, Rick Koch, a 20-year-old from Villa Park, showed up with his grandmother, whose car he was driving when a camera photographed him making a right turn at North and 25th avenues. That corner generates huge revenues for Melrose Park and SafeSpeed.
“Originally, I was going to pay it, get it out of my way,” Koch says.
Instead, he took time off work to fight the ticket and found the video proved he stopped before turning. Koch slumped his shoulders in relief when the adjudicator for the village dismissed the case, saying he may have been unjustly cited because he stopped the car well short of the white line in the right-turn lane.
There were other cases with similar findings in evidence at a recent hearing in Berwyn. Bryant Anderson’s car was recorded making a right from Cermak Avenue onto northbound Harlem Avenue just after 2:45 p.m. Feb. 11. A little over a month later, Anderson got a citation from Berwyn, which said SafeSpeed’s camera caught him breaking the law.
Rather than pay the $100 fine by mail, he challenged the ticket, showing up for a 3 p.m. hearing at the Berwyn police department on April 18. The video showed his car clearly stopped before turning onto Harlem.
“I shouldn’t have had to come here to contest this ticket because, once your wheels come to a complete stop, you are stopped,” Anderson said after the hearing.
That same afternoon in Berwyn, Sejal Shah of Oak Brook also got his ticket tossed after being accused of running a red with his Tesla at the same intersection. Again, the video vindicated Shah, a 44-year-old doctor who had to leave work at MacNeal Hospital early to attend the hearing at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday.
“It should have been dismissed to begin with because I did make the stop before moving forward,” Shah says.
In Berwyn, as in other suburbs, officials say a police officer reviews the video sent by the red-light camera vendor before tickets are sent out.
Berwyn’s attorney, Anthony Bertuca, is the adjudicator in the town’s red-light camera court. He starts every session by calmly lecturing all of the defendants, then reviews the evidence on a screen that the defendants also are invited to look at.
He advises everyone to make a long stop on red if they want to make sure to avoid having to come to court again or pay another fine.
“If you counted ‘one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi,’ you wouldn’t be here,” Bertuca tells those at the hearing. “That’s not the law. But, if you did that, you wouldn’t be here today.”
Mark Wallace, a radio-show host who’s executive director of Citizens to Abolish Red Light Cameras, notes that the law only requires a stop at a red light — not that drivers must stop for an extended time, as Bertuca advises. Wallace says he thinks many people pay to avoid the hassle of fighting the tickets, even when they aren’t at fault.
The Sun-Times and ABC7 found that fewer than 5 percent of those cited based on the cameras fight the tickets.
RED-LIGHT REVENUES: Click here to see how much money each suburb makes off red-light cameras
“If you look at those suburbs, as opposed to the city of Chicago, the suburbs actually have a right-turn lane at the light,” Wallace says. “Because the intersections, in many respects, are badly designed, the person has to pull out a little further to be able to make a judgment about whether or not it’s safe to turn. But by the time they’ve done that, they’ve surpassed what the villages call the ‘traffic line.’ ”
About 95 percent of suburbanites getting tickets are accused of making illegal right turns against a red light, Wallace estimates. Bertuca, the Berwyn attorney, agrees that about 95 percent of the cases he sees in traffic court involve drivers turning right.
Lai, the SafeSpeed co-owner, says mistakes by his company, such as those cited in the dismissed cases in Berwyn and Melrose Park, are “very rare.”
“The number who are ticketed who came to a complete stop is actually very, very small,” Lai says.
Although a federal study in 2010 found that right turns were factors in just 1.2 percent of crashes, red-light camera operators and municipal officials say the cameras are about safety first, not money.
“There’s no doubt that these red-light cameras do raise revenue,” Bertuca says. “But the main thing [officials] are concerns about is safety.”
Jen Donahoo — who successfully contested a ticket she got from a SafeSpeed camera in Melrose Park — doesn’t buy that argument.
“I definitely think it’s for them to get money,” says Donahoo, 33, who works in digital marketing. “They’re hoping people won’t contest and will just pay the ticket.”
Contributing: Jason Knowles, Ann Pistone and Madeline J. Scott of ABC7 Chicago. To read the ABC7 report, click here.