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Countdown signals demanded at red-light camera intersections

Chicago motorists routinely slam on the brakes to avoid getting nailed by red-light cameras. Some have caused rear-end collisions while avoiding the dreaded $100 ticket.

That panicky and dangerous behavior could come to a crashing halt, if a pair of aldermen have their way.

Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th) and Economic, Capital and Technology Development Chairman Tom Tunney (44th) want to mandate countdown signals at all 174 Chicago intersections where 352 red-light cameras are installed.

Twice in the last six years, Beale has proposed countdown signals at red-light intersections, only to hit a dead end because of the cost. It’s a minimum of $15,000 per corner and upward of $45,000 at the oldest signals. That means the overall price tag could top $7.8 million.

But after introducing the ordinance at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Beale argued that the cost could easily be taken off the top from the millions in fines generated each year by red-light cameras.

Beale said countdown signals — to be installed within six months of City Council passage — would benefit both motorists and pedestrians.

The ordinance would further require that yellow lights at red-light intersections be “no less than 3.2 seconds or the recognized national standards, plus one additional second, whichever is greater.”

Before any new red-light cameras are installed, the ordinance would create three additional hurdles: a traffic study to assess the safety impact; a public hearing in the affected community at least three months in advance, and City Council approval of every designated intersection.

“Countdown signals allow you to understand how much time you have to walk across. For drivers, do you have enough time to slow down or get through the intersection without slamming on your brakes to avoid that red-light ticket,” Beale said.

“The community just feels that they’re being bombarded with these tickets. This is an avenue to say — if you get a ticket after this. If we retrofit and change the yellow to national standards, now you don’t have an argument. It will put confidence back in the system.”

Weeks before the aldermanic election, Beale flatly denied that he’s taking aim at red-light cameras to curry favor with voters for whom the cameras and $100 tickets have become a political piñata.

“Not at all. It’s really just about enhancing the public-safety issue that the cameras are put in place for,” he said.

Tunney said he introduced the sweeping ordinance to “err on the [side] of the motorist and the pedestrian.”

“Red-light cameras should primarily be about public safety — not about this perceived revenue grab,” he said.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel had no immediate comment on the proposed red-light camera controls.

Tunney noted that all of the red-light cameras were installed under former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Emanuel removed a handful of them — including one in Tunney’s ward — after crash data showed they were no longer needed.

“We’re going back and making sure that there is a thorough and transparent process of why they’re there, why they stay there, and why, if not, they’re taken out,” Tunney said.

“We were successful at Belmont and Halsted to get it out. They claim the behavior has changed. I claim there wasn’t a problem in the beginning. But individual aldermen never had the ability to say `yay or nay’ on these things. If this passes, it would require an ordinance introduced in conjunction with the local alderman.”

Last year, Inspector General Joe Ferguson faulted the Chicago Department of Transportation for exercising “benign neglect” in its oversight of a red-light camera contractor at the center of a bribery scandal, allowing both suspicious ticketing spikes and equipment failures that may have cost the city millions to go unnoticed.

At Emanuel’s request, Ferguson conducted an exhaustive review of the nation’s largest red-light camera program that followed a Chicago Tribune investigation questioning the legitimacy of thousands of $100 tickets.

The inspector general said he found no evidence of “willful manipulation” by either the city or Arizona-based Redflex Traffic Systems to ratchet up the number of tickets.

To the contrary, he found that the city’s failure to exercise its legal obligation to oversee the now-fired contractor may have cost the city money.

Changes in the timing of yellow lights did not contribute to the ticketing spikes, the IG concluded. But he nevertheless recommended that CDOT “restore a prior hard 3.0 second yellow-light threshold for violations” to ensure clarity and consistency.

When Xerox took over for Redflex, CDOT gave the new contractor the go-ahead to accept tickets with a yellow light duration of 2.9 seconds to account for slight variations from the signal power source. That generated roughly 77,000 tickets.

Late last year, a City Council committee held a hearing on Chicago’s scandal-scarred red-light camera program that provided a forum for the Emanuel administration to showcase its efforts to restore public trust severely shaken by unexplained ticket spikes.

Ferguson stressed then that there has been a sea change between CDOT’s negligent oversight over Redflex and the department’s diligence in monitoring Xerox.

Still, mayoral challenger Bob Fioretti has been urging his supporters to sign petitions demanding that Emanuel refund $7.7 million in fines generated by red-light cameras after the timing of tickets processed for running yellow lights was reduced from 3 seconds to 2.9 seconds.