Red Scare: An analysis of Chicago's red-light cameras CASH COW OR SAFETY FIX? | When city installs red-light cameras, drivers learn to stop Comments June 13, 2009 BY MARY WISNIEWSKI AND ART GOLAB Staff Reporters firstname.lastname@example.org Red-light cameras have joined the weather and underachieving sports teams as one of the most popular topics to complain about in Chicago. But however people might feel about the cameras, they seem to be working, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis shows. Red light cameras in Chicago Interactive map: Red-light gotcha: Where do Chicago’s stoplight cameras catch the most drivers? We analyze all red-light-camera tickets citywide over the past six years — where they are and which bring in the most money. » Click to enlarge image A red light camera is triggered as a vehicle turns from westbound Devon Avenue onto southbound Milwaukee Avenue. After cameras are installed, tickets for red-light violations drop dramatically. (Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times) HOW TO AVOID RED-LIGHT TICKETS The key to avoiding running a red light -- and getting a ticket -- is to pay attention and watch for a "stale green," says Damian Koziel, a driving instructor and manager for Auto Metro Driving School. Koziel says drivers should watch for when a light has been green for a while, which means it's going to change soon. When faced with such a "stale green," drivers should have their foot over the brake to be ready to slow down and stop when the light changes, he says. In Chicago, lights typically stay green for 30 seconds, according to Andrew Danek, owner of Illinois Driver Education Inc. Another tip from Danek: If you're planning to turn right and the light turns yellow, stop fully before making the turn. "Don't speed through the yellow to make the turn," he says. The newspaper analyzed data from the city of Chicago on each of the 140 red-light cameras that were in place as of April (three more have since been added) since the first of them was installed, in late 2003, and found that when a camera goes up, driving improves. Well, at least, drivers pay more attention to red lights. The number of tickets issued for camera-equipped intersections drops dramatically over time, as drivers learn where cameras are and stop running the light. "It shows people are getting smart," said Joseph Schofer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University. At the 10 intersections that have had cameras the longest, the number or red-light violations -- and accompanying mailed-out tickets -- has dropped 74 percent, on average, in the last four years. At the corner of Peterson and Western, for instance, violations fell from an average of 1,015 a month between November 2004 and April 2005 to 217 a month from last November through April. Citywide, the average number of red-light violations per intersection has fallen from 1,334 when the first cameras were installed in November 2003 to 481 last month. Cameras in newer locations snag the most drivers. Of the top 15 intersections for tickets, all have had cameras for less than two years. The top corner for April, the most recent figures available, was Stony Island and 76th, with 2,763 violations. That camera went up in December. The second-highest total was at Lake Shore Drive and Belmont, with 2,230 violations. The camera there was installed in June 2008. The third-highest total was at Stony Island and 89th, with 2013 violations in April. That camera was installed in March. The city chooses where to put the cameras based on crash rates, according to David Zavattero, deputy director of traffic engineering for the city of Chicago's Office of Emergency Communications. The city has identified the 300 worst intersections for crashes and equipped 143 of them with cameras. There are plans to install 50 more this year. The city has seen a 20 percent drop in accidents at camera-monitored intersections, with no increase in rear-end collisions, despite reports of drivers braking suddenly to avoid running a light. "The evidence is mounting that these cameras add to motorist safety," said Joe Schwieterman, a transportation expert at DePaul University. "But there are still difficult questions about whether they're a license to print money." Schwieterman thinks the $100 fine is too high, considering how many cameras there are around the city. Red-light cameras have pulled in $122 million for the city through March, the latest available data. Last November, the city agreed to a five-year, $32 million contract with Redflex Traffic Systems to maintain its first 136 intersections with cameras for five years. If the number of tickets generated at each intersection were to drop below an average of 39 a month -- maintaining those cameras wouldn't be cost-effective for the city. But Chicagoans are still far from being that good at avoiding the tickets. The camera-equipped intersection with the least red-light running in April -- Madison and Western -- still netted 85 violations. Some drivers look at the automatically generated red-light-camera tickets -- which don't count against your driving record but still carry a fine -- as unfair. But Schofer said some drivers regard traffic laws as a "game" between drivers and police, and they like the odds to be in their favor. "When you have technology, you change the odds from 1 percent of getting caught to 95 percent, so people think that's unfair," Schofer said. But Schofer said he thinks the risk posed by running red lights is so high that "aggressive technology to prevent it seems like a reasonable thing." And while some drivers see cameras simply as cash cows for cities, Tom Vanderbilt, author of the book Traffic, noted that they can also be seen as "expenditure reducers" if there are fewer severe crashes, "which drivers tend to forget we all pay for, as a society."