Regulate red-light cameras better; don’t ban them

The cameras should be limited to sites where they can provide clear-cut safety benefits.

SHARE Regulate red-light cameras better; don’t ban them

Red light cameras at the corner of Belmont Avenue and Lake Shore Drive in 2017.

James Foster/For the Sun-Times

There’s a move afoot to ban red-light cameras in Illinois.

We can’t see what’s the big rush.

Two legislators have introduced bills to ban the cameras, which towns have installed to catch drivers running through red lights or turning right on red without coming to a full stop.

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Critics say the cameras do a better job of raising money than reducing accidents, and that they invite public corruption.

True enough.

Motorists complain they’ve been ticketed for making a split-second decision to proceed through an intersection in a safe manner, and the Chicago Department of Transportation was tied up in a bribery scandal with the camera vendor RedFlex Traffic Systems. Just last month, FBI raids in the suburbs reportedly were linked to a different politically connected red-light camera vendor.

But those are problems local officials can minimize.


Chicago Sun-Times. SOURCE: National Conference of State Legislatures

Rather than a ban, the cameras should be limited to carefully chosen sites where they can provide clear-cut safety benefits. And no government official, company executive or sales rep should get a cut of the money every time a red-light camera is installed or issues a ticket. That’s an invitation to corruption.

Research into the safety benefits of red-light cameras has come up with contradictory findings.

A 12-year study of three Texas cities published last year found no sign the cameras reduce traffic accidents or the number of injuries.

But a 2017 study by Northwestern University’s Transportation Center, done for the City of Chicago, found that the cameras reduced overall crashes by 10%. The study found there were fewer crashes even at intersections near those where cameras were monitoring traffic, in what was termed a “spillover” effect.

Moreover, a report done last year for the AAA, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Safety Council concluded that red-light runners were killing more people as cities took down their red-light cameras. According to the report, the fatality rate from motorists running red lights increased by 30% in cities that took down the cameras.

On any given day in Chicago, pedestrians and cyclists are threatened by motorists who barrel through an intersection, late on a red light. People are injured and killed.

Red-light cameras, that is to say, can help save lives.

But for the public to support the cameras, people must believe they are being deployed properly — for safety, not revenue. Yellow lights must be long enough, and the cameras’ timing must be lenient enough to discourage motorists from slamming on the brakes and causing rear-end collisions.

A complete ban on red-light cameras doesn’t really make much sense. They are a tool to be used appropriately.

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