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Do you hate Chicago's red light cameras? You're not alone

by Abe Tekippe
Feb 01, 2011

Red-light Camera

Abe Tekippe/MEDILL

Peterson and Western is one of 190 intersections in the city monitored by red-light cameras.     

Related Links

Map of red-light intersections in ChicagoDepartment of TransportationDepartment of Revenue

So you want to contest a ticket

There are five valid defenses for contesting red-light citations, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation:

• The facts alleged in the violation notice are inconsistent or do not support a finding that the Chicago municipal code was violated, which may include weather-related defenses.

• The defendant was issued a traffic ticket in addition to a red-light citation

• The vehicle was an emergency vehicle or part of a funeral procession

• The vehicle was reported stolen

• The defendant was not the owner of the cited vehicle at the time of the citation

A profanity-laden Facebook page with more than 10,000 fans is perhaps the best indication that some Chicago drivers aren’t exactly smiling over the city’s red-light cameras.

Bluntly titled “I HATE Chicago red light cameras!!” the page unites motorists who have been slapped with $100 tickets, the result of alleged violations at the city’s 190 camera-monitored intersections. While the majority of members have the obvious in common — their ticket — there’s something else that permeates the group: confusion about how the cameras work and what can get people a ticket.

“I think there should be more information,” said group member Barbara Ross, 63, of Rogers Park. “At what point does the camera snap that picture? Clarify it for us; we’re the ones who have to pay.”

Scott Leightman, of Redflex Traffic Systems, which operates the cameras, and the Chicago Department of Transportation described the violation-to-citation process as follows:

Only drivers who fully enter the intersection after the light turns red receive a citation. This includes motorists who make rolling right turns. Drivers who enter the intersection before the light turns red, who come to a complete stop before making a right turn or who simply pull ahead of the white line but do not enter the intersection do not receive a citation.

If a vehicle enters the intersection illegally, the red-light cameras, triggered by underground sensors, take three photos: one of the license plate, one of the vehicle entering the intersection and one of the vehicle passing through the intersection. They also record a 12-second video of the violation.

Redflex then reviews the evidence before sending it off to the Chicago Department of Revenue for subsequent review and processing. After confirming a violation has occurred, the department mails a citation to the vehicle owner — even if he or she was not driving the cited vehicle. The owner can then go online to review the evidence and decide whether he or she wants to appeal the citation.

Last year, Chicago motorists contested 52,511 of the 763,419 red-light tickets that were issued, according to Ed Walsh of the Department of Revenue.

While many critics say the cameras, which have brought in nearly a quarter-billion dollars over the past five years, are more about revenue than safety, some city officials, such as Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd), said they believe the cameras have made roads safer.

“Back in 1995 when I was first elected, one of the biggest complaints that I got was the speeding and reckless driving on Archer Avenue,” Zalewski said. There were a number of accidents at the intersection of Archer and Narragansett, where a red-light camera was installed in 2007, he said. “Since we’ve had that camera, accidents have gone down dramatically.”

Zalewski, who also serves as mayor pro tem, acknowledged that any improvements in safety have come at a literal cost to drivers.

“People look at [the cameras] as just a way to drum up money for the city, but any ticket that you get is looked at as that because you got a ticket,” he said. “Nobody likes to get tickets.”

Ultimately, Zalewski said the cameras present a lose-lose scenario when it comes to pleasing the public.

“If you do nothing and somebody gets hurt, people are going to ask, ‘Why didn’t the alderman do something?’” he said. “If [the cameras] have helped prevent some crashes, even though they’re not popular, then we just have to deal with that.”