Putting the brakes on red light cameras

Chicago's massive red light camera scandal

In the last decade, accidents caused by vehicles running red lights have killed nearly 9,000 people in the U.S. Engineers have grappled with ways to make intersections safer, and one of the most controversial methods is to use red light cameras.

Redflex Traffic Systems, one of the leading manufacturers of red light camera systems, says its “traffic safety cameras are working to keep people safe on our roads.” But critics say red light cameras are less about saving lives and more about generating revenue for cash-strapped municipalities. Studies conducted in Florida, California, Virginia and Illinois and by the Federal Highway Administration conclude that red light cameras almost always lead to a steep increase in rear-end collisions.

“When you throw a red light camera up at an intersection,” says David Kidwell, an investigative reporter for The Chicago Tribune, “it creates a psychological problem because you’ve got all of these things going on in the driver’s mind. And one of them is, ‘Wow. If I don’t stop here and I go through on a short yellow at the very end, I’m gonna get nailed.’ So what happened was, people started slamming on the brakes. And lo and behold, there’s a 22 percent increase in rear-end accidents at these intersections that have red light cameras [in Chicago].”

The red light camera programs are really the result of an unholy alliance between for-profit companies such as Redflex and cash-strapped municipalities. And they combine the worst of both.

Patrick Keating

Partner, Roberts McGivney & Zagotta

David Kidwell is an investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune and has written extensively about Chicago’s red-light camera program.

Kidwell has been following the troubled history of Chicago’s red light camera program. Since 2003, the city’s nearly 400 red light cameras have brought in $500 million in traffic fines. Money, he says, the city desperately needs.

“The city of Chicago’s bond rating is darn near junk rating right now,” says Kidwell. “This city is in an enormous financial crisis. They can’t afford their public pension system. They’re running at a deficit. Ending the red light camera program only creates more problems for the government of the city of Chicago in terms of making up very, very critical shortfall in the amount of money they have to run the city.”

Chicago’s red light cameras have generated a lot of controversy, and the city’s inspector general confirmed that the management of the red light camera program was “fundamentally deficient.” Kidwell’s investigation exposed other issues at intersections with red light cameras in Chicago, including that yellow light intervals are too short. 

Federal guidelines say yellow lights should last at least 3.2 seconds. The Chicago’s Department of Transportation says its “yellow lights are set at three seconds.” 

States that have been bribed by Redflex Traffic Systems according to a former Redflex employee.

Kidwell uncovered evidence that many of the red light camera intersections had yellow light intervals of less than three seconds. That means more red light violations and millions of dollars more for the city.

Patrick Keating’s law firm is leading a $500 million class action lawsuit against Chicago on behalf of motorists who received red light camera citations. He says, “There are probably somewhere between a half million and a million discrete vehicle owners who have received red light camera tickets in Chicago, which is pretty staggering when you consider that the population of the city is only 2.8 million. We think that it’s possible that as many as 1 in 3 people in the city have received red light camera tickets.”

He says, “The red light camera programs are really the result of an unholy alliance between for-profit companies such as Redflex and cash-strapped municipalities. And they combine the worst of both.”

Red light camera revenue is municipal crack cocaine. They will go down fighting before they give up the revenue from the cameras.

Barnet Fagel

Red Light Doctor

Terie Kata is part of a $500 million class action lawsuit which alleges that Chicago’s red-light program is illegal.

Terie Kata, one of Keating’s clients, says the red light camera that took a photo of her car is “a thief. It is doing nothing but stealing people’s money.”

Kata recently received a $100 citation after being captured on camera going through an intersection whose yellow light interval was less than three seconds. “There are people that think a $100 ticket is ‘Oh, what’s the big deal?’” she says. “But you know what? It is a big deal. First off, I worked hard to earn that $100, [which] was a big deal to me. So I was like, ‘What can I do?’”

That’s where Barnet Fagel comes in. He’s better known to thousands of Chicagoans as the Red Light Doctor. He says, “What I do is try and even the playing field so that everybody has a fair chance.” Using a video camera and special software, he is able to capture the exact duration of a yellow light interval. It’s evidence, he says, that can help drivers get a fair hearing.

“Almost without fail,” he says, “the yellow lights in Chicago’s traffic signals are either just below three seconds or a couple of tenths of seconds below three seconds. Rarely do I find them long enough. The city is right on the edge. They claim they’re adhering to the law, which they are not.”

Fagel ran a video test at the intersection of Belmont and Lakeshore Drive where Kata received her ticket and found that the yellow light there lasts just 2.873 seconds. 

The red light camera at that intersection ranks as one of the biggest moneymakers in Chicago, routinely raking in more than $1.6 million per year. 

He says he has “come away with a distinct impression that red light camera revenue is municipal crack cocaine. They’re hooked on it. They will go down fighting before they give up the revenue from the cameras.”

Red light cameras are the main topic of conversation in Herb’s Barber Shop on Chicago’s West Side. “You should not keep on squeezing the people on the bottom of the totem pole,” says owner Herb Harrington, who has been in business for 39 years. “And that’s what they’re doing.”

La Shawn Ford is a five-term Democratic member of the Illinois House of Representatives and has been going to Herb’s since he was a kid. Ford recently proposed legislation to freeze the use of red light cameras in Chicago. “I thought that we should at least put a moratorium on the law until we can have a system in place that was fair for the people that drive through Chicago and that live in Chicago.”

Roy Flowers, a barber at Herb’s, says, “The thing about the red light tickets, they can ruin somebody’s whole life and livelihood. Let’s say you make $10, $15 an hour. You get two tickets, you get a boot. So now you can’t go to work. You lose your job. You lose a car. All over a $100 red light.”

Herb Harrington sits in his barber shop on Chicago’s West Side.

Red light cameras are a hot topic in much of Chicago, since the city issues more than 600,000 red light tickets per year. Kidwell says Chicago became the nation’s capital of red light cameras through a mix of corruption and backroom politics, Chicago-style.

It all started with an internal Redflex Traffic Systems memo that a whistleblower leaked to Kidwell, which, he says, “laid out this bribery scheme. And it essentially said that this city employee by the name of John Bills had received $1,500 per camera for every camera that he oversaw the installation of. And there were 384 of them at that time. Which is an incredibly amount of money. It talked about trips. Lavish vacations and things like this for this city employee, who at the time was the managing deputy commissioner of transportation at the city of Chicago.”

Then another former Redflex employee, Michael Schmidt, approached Kidwell. Schmidt told him about a meeting he attended in 2003 with Bills and Redflex’s then-CEO Karen Finley.

“There was a quintessential Chicago meeting,” says Kidwell, “in the bar at the top of the John Hancock Center, where John Bills had a meeting with Karen Finley and several of her top executives to coach them on how to behave at a very important meeting the next day at City Hall.”

We should at least put a moratorium on the law until we can have a system in place that was fair for the people that drive through Chicago and that live in Chicago.

Rep (D) La Shawn K. Ford

Illinois 8th District

Michael Schmidt is a whistleblower who formerly worked at Redflex Traffic Systems.

Schmidt was present at that meeting in 2003. He says, “John Bills began to start doing some coaching as to how we should behave at the meeting the following day. He looked directly at me, and he said, ‘Now, now I’m gonna talk to you like I don’t know you, and you have to go along with that.’ I looked over at my boss, Karen Finley. And she just very, very quietly held one finger up and looked at me and then put it back down again and sort of shook her head just a little bit. And it was very, very subtle. And I really had to replay it in my head a couple of times. ‘Did she really do that? Did that really happen?’”

Many critics say that at this point, the fix was in. Redflex was awarded an exclusive contract worth $124 million over the next nine years to install all of Chicago’s 384 red light cameras. But Kidwell’s series of investigative articles, which started in 2012, drew the attention of federal prosecutors, which led to a remarkable turn of events.

In May of 2014, Bills was indicted on a federal bribery charge. Prosecutors say that as assistant transportation commissioner, he received as much as $2 million in bribes from Redflex. 

Still frame from Barnet Fagel’s camera documenting that the yellow light at Lakeshore Drive and Belmont lasts for only 2.873 seconds.

Redflex also came under fire. On Aug. 20 of this year, Finley pleaded guilty to a federal charge that she conspired to bribe Bills. A few months earlier, she pleaded guilty to another federal charge that she bribed transportation officials in Ohio.

And there are now signs that Chicago might finally be starting to hit the brakes on its red light camera program. On Aug. 30, the city filed a $300 million dollar lawsuit against Redflex, charging the city’s entire red light program was built on Redflex’s “systematic bribery of John Bills.”

Bills’ attorney says his client “never had the power or authority to do what federal prosecutors allege [and that] John Bills did his job in the best interest of Chicago, not himself.” His trial begins in January, and if convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison.

But Redflex’s problems are far from over. A fired former executive of that company now working with federal prosecutors alleges in another lawsuit that Redflex executives bribed officials in at least 13 other states. 

The company tells Al Jazeera America that it “has new leadership, new systems and new policies [and is] committed to transparency and honesty in our business practices.”

Despite the controversy, Kidwell says, Chicago probably won’t end its red light camera program anytime soon. “They’ve still got 300 cameras out there. It’s still the largest camera operation in the country,” he says. “And it still fills a very, very huge budget hole for the city of Chicago.”

Al Jazeera repeatedly reached out to the Chicago Department of Transportation and asked about yellow light timings, increases in the number of rear-end collisions at intersections with red light cameras and the city’s lawsuit against Redflex. As of the time of publication, the city has refused to respond.


Laura Kuhn contributed to this story.

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