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updated: 5/19/2011 9:51 AM

A personal brush with the callous red-light camera law

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To some people, $100 is a lot of money. I, alas, am one of those people. So when, having videoed my car making what it alleged to be an illegal right turn on red, the City of Des Plaines engaged me in a tug of war over that sum, it wasn't principle alone that drew me to take up the quixotic challenge. But principle was involved. I at least wanted a human being to look me in the eye and tell me that my behavior had been a threat to safety.

As luck and the rule of law would have it, I ultimately would be denied this satisfaction by virtue of actually winning my case. But I would in the process absorb with excruciating clarity enough of the process to remove any qualms I may have harbored about the Daily Herald editorial board's position on red-light cameras and to cheer public bodies, like the DuPage County Board this week, that reject use of a technology that hides behind the rule of law in the quest for easy lucre.

I must here acknowledge that I have had qualms about my own, and my paper's, unflinching resistance to red-light cameras. I am sensitive, as is the editorial board, to the argument that the technology's purpose is to catch lawbreakers and improve safety. When skeptics of Open Road Tolling cried that the technology could be used to catch speeders, I found it hard to side with them. Not that I want to actually drive any slower, but let's face it. If the speed limit is 55 mph, and a foolproof way exists to identify drivers who exceed that limit, why is it "cheating" to catch them?

So, I respect the law. But one can't deny that we apply it very selectively, and without much deference to safety, as a couple of years of Daily Herald reporting has shown. During the three-hour wait for my turn at justice, not once did I see someone charged with actually running a red light. Every case involved a dispute over the definition or location of a stop before a right turn. A fair number of cases, I should note, were laughable. The suspects didn't make the least effort to stop and pretty much had to acknowledge it. But in far more situations, there was room for discussion, even if their hope was so slim that after I won my case, an officer of the court shook my hand and said he couldn't remember when he'd seen that happen.

For those of you red-light scofflaw suspects thinking about challenging the logic of the court or testing its mercy, let me tell you it will not surrender the former nor dispense the latter. Space does not permit me to describe every plea I heard, but suffice it to say that no matter how righteous or original you may consider your argument, the court has heard it before. It has a well-prepared response that almost invariably ends with, "You'll get a bill in the mail."

I owe my own rescue to the transgression of the driver in front of me. The video of my case showed my car clearly stopped behind a vehicle that had exceeded the white line by half a length or more, leaving me stopped within a range acceptable to the law. Though the court and I were prepared to dispute whether my later hesitation qualified as a second stop, I decided not to risk my $100 with further argument or the self-righteous speech I'd been preparing for weeks.

So, I got to look the court in the eye, but I didn't get to express the indignation I harbored. But I did learn an important lesson. Red lights are indeed more about money than safety, but the court doesn't care about that. Its only concern is the law. And no matter how selective the authorities who bring issues here, it addresses them with raw indifference.

If $100 is valuable to you, you have only two hopes of protecting it from the camera's unsympathetic stare. Obey the law scrupulously or get it changed. Of course, you can hope for a break from the offender in front of you, but even I wouldn't count on that.