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Active Transportation Alliance pushing back to save red-light cameras

Last week, fourteen aldermen tried and failed to force a vote on a plan to eliminate red-light and speed cameras by 2018.

That’s 12 votes short of 26 needed for passage, but too close for comfort for the Active Transportation Alliance — especially when mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia is campaigning on a promise to eliminate red-light cameras on day one, if he wins the April 7 runoff.

RELATED: City accused of violating due process in red-light and speed camera ticketing

Now, transportation advocates are fighting back with a campaign to highlight the people they say are the “real victims” who’ve been forgotten in the political furor over red-light cameras: the 21,000 people seriously injured or killed every year in traffic accidents on Chicago streets.

They’re launching a Chicago version of “Vision Zero,” an international traffic safety movement that relies heavily on surveillance cameras and photo enforcement.

It’s based on the principles that no loss of life to traffic accidents is acceptable and that red-light cameras that serve as police force “multipliers” are pivotal tools that can prevent crashes.

Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance , said Monday that he’s concerned the debate over red-light cameras has turned into a game of political football that could culminate in the loss of an “important traffic safety tool.”

He noted that, in 2012, there were more than 77,000 reported traffic accidents in Chicago, with 145 people killed and nearly 21,000 seriously injured.

“This is no time to throw the baby out with the bath water,” Burke said. “If it goes away all together, who’s gonna enforce these traffic laws? Who’s gonna be there when motorists are running red lights and putting people in danger?”

“The reality is that most cities don’t have enough police officers to enforce traffic laws. Photo enforcement is a great way to bridge that gap and effectively multiply the power of the police to enforce the law. If the cameras go away, it’s not likely that red lights are gonna be enforced anymore, or enforcement will be spotty, at best.”

To address what Burke called “legitimate concerns” about the fairness of red-light cameras, the ATA is proposing an independent task force comprised of transportation planners, engineers, academics and other traffic safety experts.

They would be charged with taking a “level-headed look” at the 302 red-light cameras that remained at 149 Chicago intersections after Mayor Rahm Emanuel took down 50 more cameras to put out a political fire that threatened to burn his chances of winning re-election.

“Important issues with the program have been called into question that deserve careful consideration. Some changes may very well be warranted,” Burke said.

“Let’s make sure the cameras are located at intersections where they do the most good. If they’re not doing the most good, maybe it’s time to move that camera to a different spot or take it down.”

In 2013, red-light running triggered more than 1,100 accidents that killed six people and seriously injured 700, transportation advocates say.

James Longfield was one of those hurt. He was riding his bike north on Elston Ave. when he was hit by a cabdriver who turned right on red at the intersection of Elston and Courtland.

“We need increased enforcement of traffic laws on our streets to save lives and prevent serious injuries like mine. Traffic safety cameras are part of that,” Longfield was quoted as saying in a news release.

Former Little Village resident James Bausch lost his 24-year-old girlfriend, Humboldt Community Christian School teacher Amanda Annis, to an April 2008 crash in Logan Square.

Annis was riding her bike west on Armitage when she was hit by a motorist who ran a red light. Bausch rode his own bike past the police activity before returning to the scene to learn that his girlfriend had been killed while he was picking up an engagement ring.

“Nobody should have to go through what Mandy’s family and I went through in losing someone we loved to a preventable traffic crash,” Bausch said.

“We need to be doing more to enforce traffic laws and hold violators accountable to prevent tragedies like this from happening on our streets.”

Richard Retting is a traffic safety expert who has documented the benefits of red-light cameras in studies conducted for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The studies showed reductions in red-light running that ranged from 40 percent to 96 percent after cameras were installed.

The studies, though, made no mention of the fact that rear-end collisions can increase after cameras are installed because motorists slam on the brakes to avoid getting a slapped with a $100 ticket.