Traffic cameras seem to be all the rage among public officials these days — they played a big part in New York City’s Vision Zero efforts and both Philadelphia and D.C. followed suit. That doesn’t mean that they’re beloved by the general public. And in Chicago, where one of U.S.’s biggest red-light camera (RLC) programs was instigated in 2003, they’ve done horribly in opinion polls, been the subject of a massive lawsuit and even took center stage in the 2015 mayoral election.
Now, following new research from the Northwestern University Transportation Center, Chicago drivers will get a longer grace period before being charged with a $100 red light camera ticket, the Chicago Tribune reports.
The report, titled simply “Chicago Red Light Camera Enforcement” found that that “enforcing violations that occur within fractions of a second after the light turns red might not provide significant safety benefits.” Researchers noted that there is a “legitimate ‘dilemma zone’ faced by drivers as a light turns from yellow to red in which law-abiding drivers can be caught.” (This is a particularly thorny issue in Chicago, as Next City has previously covered).
Given that “dilemma zone,” the report recommended that the city extend its “enforcement threshold” when cars are given tickets from 0.1 seconds to 0.3 seconds after the light turns red, more in line with how New York and Philadelphia’s systems operate. The extended grace period will go into effect immediately, and will cut the number of tickets issued by about 29 percent and cost the city about $17 million in revenue loss this year, according to the Tribune.
Despite negative public opinion, the study did recommend the city continue with the red light camera program, pointing to a number of successes, including that injury-producing crashes decreased by about 10 percent due to the camera program. Significantly, the report also found that angle and turn crashes decreased by about 19 percent thanks to the RLCs. Less dangerous rear-end crashes, however, increased by about 14 percent. That increase is consistent with findings in other cities.
“Federally sponsored traffic safety research has shown that angle and turn crashes have a lost productivity cost to society that is about five times greater than the cost attributed to damage from rear-end crashes,” a release from Northwestern University states.
RLCs also have a measurable “spillover effect,” and help improve safety at intersections without cameras.
In addition to extending the grace period, researchers outline a number of steps the city can take to improve the program, including reviewing crash data on a regular basis and using that analysis to move cameras around as needed. The city plans to remove RLCs at six intersections and add them to five others. Finally, they recommend that the city improve the program’s transparency. This last one could be key, because Chicago’s cameras don’t exactly have a pristine history.
In 2015, Next City covered Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s lawsuit against the city’s former camera operator, Reflex Traffic Systems, for upwards of $300 million. According to the lawsuit, Reflex executives were overly cozy with a former top city transportation executive — who received vacation trips, computers and golf outings, among other perks, from the company.
The Northwestern researchers used data from the City of Chicago and Illinois Department of Transportation and followed a “two-stage approach,” looking first at crash frequency and RLC violations independently, and then examining them together. The $300,000 study was paid for by the city.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.