Why Chicago needs red-light cameras

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I detest those red-light and speed camera violations as much as anyone — well, maybe not as much as the group, “Citizens to Abolish Red Light Cameras.”

Still, I’d hate for us to end up like Milwaukee.

Running red lights is so bad in that city that officials and law enforcement describe the situation as an “epidemic,” and have dubbed the dangerous behavior “red-light roulette.”

From 2012 through 2017, crashes with injuries in Milwaukee jumped 26.9 percent

In the months leading up to my mother’s death in late September, I spent a lot of time visiting family in the Milwaukee area recently, and I saw the reckless behavior firsthand.

It was scary.

Besides the risk too many motorists take when they try to read emails or catch up on social media on their phones while behind the wheel, I saw behavior that should be reserved for video games.

For instance, I saw a motorist use the bike lane to race past a line of cars, and then run the red light. The car was going so fast, I could hear the whoosh.

Another time, a car flew through a gas station, barely missing a pedestrian, to avoid stopping at the red light.

My jaw dropped.

“Bike lanes” are considered “fast lanes” in Milwaukee, my sister said matter-of-factly. It’s a dangerous game.

I can honestly say I don’t run red lights even when no one’s watching.

Obviously, running red lights can have tragic consequences.

On Sunday on the Southwest Side, a 5-year-old girl was killed and seven other people (including five other children) were injured when a car ran a red light. A 41-year-old woman was cited for “failing to obey the red light and yield in the intersection,” in connection with the tragic crash.

I hesitate to call this an accident because if the woman saw that the red light and drove into the intersection anyway, that’s not an accident. That’s reckless driving and should be treated like a crime.

From Jan. 1 through Monday, 830 people died in 760 fatal crashes in Illinois. That’s a reduction of 49 deaths compared to the same period last year, according to statistics compiled by the Illinois Department of Transportation.

A lot of people oppose the city’s use of red-light cameras because they see the fine as a revenue-generating tool rather than a public safety measure.

The biggest complaint is these fines hit poor people the hardest.

I agree.

But I don’t want to give the city $100, either, so I try hard not to run a red light. I’m sure there are more people like me than folks who intentionally blow red lights.

It helps that a 2017 study by Northwestern University Transportation Center, paid for by the city, led to a longer grace period — from 0.1 seconds to 0.3 seconds — after the light turns red before assessing the fine.

Last year, the City Council’s Finance Committee approved a $39 million settlement of a lawsuit that contended the city did not give motorists required second notices of red-light and speed-camera violations before assessing late fees.

In 2015, the controversial red-light and speed cameras were hammers Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s opponents used against him in the mayoral election. The issue has resurfaced, with two candidates — Willie Wilson and Tony LaRaviere — promising to get rid of the traffic cameras.

That’s not necessarily a good idea. A $100 ticket is a strong motivator.

Between 2005 and 2016, crashes of all types were down at intersections with cameras, with right-angle (T-bone) crashes, decreased by 66 percent, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation website.

To tamp down reckless driving, Milwaukee poured police resources, called a “surge,” into areas with the “highest traffic infractions, violent crime and general disorder.”

That city has had some success.

Car crashes in the surge areas fell by 12 percent, traffic stops increased 56 percent and “stops that resulted in a ticket jumped 111 percent,” according to the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, a project of Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University.

Because of Chicago’s history of racial profiling, and well-documented incidents of biased policing, a similar strategy isn’t likely to be well received here.

Still, we can’t let reckless driving become a trend.

Frankly, I don’t feel sorry for motorists that wrack up stacks of red-light violations.

Instead of getting rid of cameras, a lot more of us need to practice what we learned in kindergarten.

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