Vehicle for corruption: Red-light cameras cost more than $100 ticket

For years, red-light cameras have been hurting Illinoisans, ticketing unsuspecting drivers in a way that prioritizes profits over other considerations.

We’ve all grown accustomed to the camera flash at intersections but need to pay attention to costs beyond the fines: there’s mounting evidence the automated traffic devices are ineffective at improving safety, the pervasive corruption surrounding their implementation continues, and we may be costing some suburbs their reputations and business. The truth is, hundreds of red-light cameras remain because they mean big cash for local governments.

In the past five years alone, Illinois cities pocketed more than $500 million from red-light camera tickets. More than half of that — $276 million — was generated by red-light cameras in municipalities outside of Chicago, specifically, since 2019.

Illinois leads the nation when it comes to red-light cameras. Of the 337 communities that use the devices, 90 are in Illinois.

Chicago installed the first cameras in 2003, and they spread to the suburbs in 2008. Since that expansion, more than $1.56 billion has been generated from tickets statewide. The camera count also increased by 181, driven primarily by municipalities outside Chicago.

In 17 municipalities — including Evergreen Park, Burbank and Rolling Meadows — the number of tickets issued exceeds the number of residents. Bedford Park issued the equivalent of 23 tickets for every resident. The village of Berwyn brought in the second-highest revenue in the state following Chicago, with $30.8 million from cameras in 15 years.

The impact of these cameras extends far beyond $100 automated tickets. As former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot herself acknowledged, speed cameras and red-light cameras disproportionately burden low-income Chicagoans, exacerbating the financial strain on already vulnerable households. The same is true in the suburbs.

Plus, the red-light camera industry has become a vehicle for corruption in Illinois, further eroding public trust. There was the bribery scheme exposed in 2019 involving former state Sen. Martin Sandoval, then came recent indictments of mayors and lawmakers on charges of extortion and bribery related to the placement of cameras.

It’s clear the lawmakers and municipalities involved cared more about getting their share of the cash than improving public safety. Many investigations have cast doubt on the effectiveness of red-light cameras in promoting road safety at all.

A 2014 study by the Chicago Tribune found that while red-light cameras may reduce the incidence of T-bone collisions, they simultaneously trigger a 22% increase in rear-end collisions — a net negative for traffic safety. A corroborating 2018 investigation by Case Western Reserve University found red-light cameras had no measurable effect on improving safety and suggested red-light cameras increased accidents overall.

For Terry Boone, a Winthrop Harbor resident and business owner who received three separate tickets, enough was enough. He’s vowing to avoid spending money in municipalities that employ red-light cameras.

By limiting his business activities within these townships, Boone hopes to convince municipalities to step away from this money grab.

The lesson is clear: The negative perception surrounding red-light cameras can tarnish a suburb’s reputation, making it less attractive to prospective businesses and to their potential customers. Short-term gain comes at a long-term, hidden cost.

More municipalities are starting to see red-light cameras as a net negative. Since 2014, 60 local governments have reduced the number of cameras and 30 removed them entirely.

These devices have proven to ultimately create distrust and a hostile environment, enable corruption and disproportionately burden low-income residents. More local municipalities should remove the cameras, or better yet, the state should ban them.

Matt Paprocki is president and CEO of the Illinois Policy Institute.

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