Last week, the Daily Herald and the Chicago Tribune each ran lengthy articles exposing the “dirty little secret” behind red-light cameras in Illinois suburbs. While the cameras were sold on the idea that they would ticket reckless drivers who blow through intersections, the reality has been much different.
The Daily Herald’s investigation showed that:
Of the 16 municipalities that issue citations for right turns and were able to break down their violation data, 100 percent acknowledged the majority of their tickets come from right turns. The total of right-turn citations going out per town ranged from 100 percent to 64 percent. Six municipalities estimated the rate of right-turn tickets was 90 percent or higher of the total violations.
As the Herald points out, right turns on red are not a significant safety problem:
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data analyzing vehicle maneuvers and accidents shows that 0.8 percent — less than 1 percent — of fatal crashes in 2007 occurred when a driver was turning right. […]
DuPage County Board Member Paul Fichtner calls the predominance of right-turn violations the technology’s “dirty little secret.” “It’s almost like bait and switch,” said Fichtner, arguing that local officials are sold on the idea of stopping reckless behavior when they approve red light cameras but that the results don’t match the hype.
The Tribune highlights an example of a proud bureaucrat bragging about how much money his city has taken from (mostly out-of-town) motorists:
When the very first red-light camera was planted in the suburbs at 25th Avenue and Harrison Street in Bellwood, it instantly became more than just a traffic control device.
It became a cash machine.
That one device generates $60,000 to $70,000 a month in revenue from traffic fines for the western suburb, Bellwood Comptroller Roy McCampbell once declared as he likened the camera to “Lotto or casino type operations.”
“That intersection is a guaranteed amount of money,” McCampbell boasted to an Illinois Municipal League seminar in a 2007 presentation that was recorded and posted on YouTube. “… It just keeps popping.”
The reason is simple: The camera guards an entrance path to the Eisenhower Expressway and snaps away as cars and trucks make rolling right turns on red with astounding frequency.
The city insists that the cameras are for safety, but their actions don’t seem consistent with that view:
In his municipal league talk, McCampbell said he and other Bellwood officials lobbied for the new law. He said the driving force was the deaths of four people in a July 2005 crash that involved red light running at Mannheim Road and Madison Street.
Bellwood has eight traffic cameras, but none at that intersection.
Mr. McCampbell makes no attempt to hide his city’s intentions:
In an interview, McCampbell said Bellwood uses fine revenue from traffic cameras to underwrite the costs of police video surveillance equipment that watches the town of 20,000. The biggest financial contributor is the 25th and Harrison camera.
But that’s not the only reason why Bellwood officials value that particular camera, McCampbell admitted. He said 90 percent of violators it catches don’t live in Bellwood and are headed to the expressway.
“To be very crass, they are less likely to return and complain about it,” he said.
Even the minority of drivers, who decide to fight their ticket, have to contend with policies designed to discourage them.
The Herald has the story of a woman who went through the process. She had to pay $140 simply to get her case heard by an actual judge.
THE BIRTH OF A SCAM
The Tribune did some excellent investigative reporting on how this scam got its start in the Illinois suburbs.
Here’s the overview via excerpts from the Tribune’s article:
1) There was an accident at a railroad crossing which caught the attention of the media and legislature.
On Thanksgiving eve in 2005, a Metra express train plowed into five cars at the busy Grand Avenue crossing in west suburban Elmwood Park, leaving behind piles of twisted metal, 16 injured people and a golden, moneymaking opportunity for the politically connected.
State lawmakers were quick to propose a crackdown on drivers who swerve around lowered crossing gates.
2) RedSpeed, a ticket camera manufacturer, used the tragedy to get a foothold in the US market.
Moving with a lightning speed befitting its name, a then-2-year-old British traffic camera-maker called RedSpeed latched onto savvy Illinois political insiders and came to dominate Chicago’s lucrative suburban market even though it had never before operated in the U.S.
So aggressive was the push that one suburban police chief recommended that his town hire RedSpeed a week before it was even incorporated in Illinois. […]
The ownership of RedSpeed is obscured in public records, but the firm is part of a closely held Israeli-owned conglomerate that does most of its business in Kazakhstan, the former Soviet Republic that Americans perhaps know best — maybe unfairly — from the mockumentary “Borat.”
There are other curiosities. RedSpeed’s sole U.S. operation is in west suburban Lombard, and it markets itself as the only Illinois-based firm in the highly technical red-light camera business. Yet the corporate structure is topped by a holding company whose CEO lives in Staten Island, N.Y., and works in the office of a Manhattan ophthalmologist.
3) RedSpeed gets the jump on other ticket camera companies by quickly signing up a core group of suburbs with the help of well-connected lobbyists and public officials.
Company officials boast that they have lined up contracts with more than 50 Illinois municipalities — more than all competitors combined. RedSpeed got a jump-start by quickly signing up a core group of suburbs — among them Bellwood, Berwyn, Bolingbrook, Elmwood Park, Melrose Park and Rosemont — with ties to a close network of clout-heavy lobbyists and former public officials.
The company’s sales director is Greg Zito, a former state senator from Melrose Park who also is a longtime Illinois lobbyist for British banking and credit card giant HSBC and the local loan giant it bought, Household International. Those two firms have long been a major source of campaign cash for the red-light legislation’s chief sponsor, state Rep. Angelo “Skip” Saviano (R-Elmwood Park).
RedSpeed also has become something of a gathering spot for associates of Zito and his longtime friend Al Ronan, another former Illinois lawmaker and a lobbyist for RedSpeed since 2007. Ronan — who lobbied for the red-light camera legislation on behalf of Melrose Park — was a name partner in a lobbying firm that pleaded guilty to federal bid-rigging charges in 2004, though Ronan personally was not charged. He also was a major fundraiser for both former Govs. George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich.
According to minutes of meetings in several municipalities, the sales force pitching RedSpeed in Illinois has included Scott Okun, who once ran the Illinois Toll Highway Authority’s I-Pass program but quit after being suspended in 2006 amid questions about a printing contract. Ronan’s name appeared as political sponsor for Okun on a 2003 list of state job-seekers kept by Blagojevich’s office. Another past Ronan political operative from Berwyn also has served as a RedSpeed salesman, according to village board minutes and interviews.
4) Legislation to prevent railroad crossing crashes is transformed into a law authorizing red-light cameras.
As first introduced, Saviano’s legislation addressed the kind of dangerous situation that may have contributed to the Elmwood Park Metra collision. It would have allowed the use of enforcement cameras to catch drivers who swerved around lowered railroad crossing gates.
On the House floor, Saviano had the bill rewritten to authorize red-light cameras. Another version of the bill was pushed on a parallel track by now-Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), though it was the Saviano measure that became law.
Considerable lobbying heat lined up behind the concept in addition to Ronan. Redflex lobbyists pushed for suburban cameras. Bellwood dispatched at least five emissaries, legislative records show, including two who have had a long history of doing lobbying work with Ronan. Bellwood’s efforts paid off handsomely: The suburb netted more than $1.1 million in red-light camera revenue last year.
5) RedSpeed, through intermediaries, thanks Bellwood for its help in extracting money from drivers.
It’s hardly unusual for financial firms in Illinois to help bankroll campaigns, and records show that Zito’s HSBC has given away nearly $1.3 million in political donations over the last 15 years.
But one of the smallest gifts stands out.
On April 3, 2006, HSBC gave $500 to the political organization of Frank Pasquale, the mayor of Bellwood, which was soon to become RedSpeed’s first customer. The banking giant had never before written Pasquale’s campaign a check and has never done so since, state records show.
April 3 was the day the General Assembly gave final approval for Saviano’s red-light camera bill, a development that opened the suburban market to camera vendors like RedSpeed.
Zito said the timing of the gift was “purely coincidental” and “occurred well before RedSpeed-Illinois’ existence, either conceptually or officially.”
Thanks to the stories by the Herald and Tribune, legislators are feeling the public pressure on this issue and are considering reforming the red-light camera laws.