Did red-light cameras cut crashes? Not always, analysis shows
The saving grace for getting a $100 ticket from a red-light camera is the belief that the expensive fine could reduce crashes and even save lives.
But that's not always what happens, a Daily Herald analysis of 55 intersections across 29 suburbs shows. Instead of declining, crashes -- and especially more serious collisions -- increased or stayed the same at some intersections after cameras were installed.
For example, crashes involving injuries went up or stayed the same at nearly half the intersections where that data was reported.
And crashes considered hazardous by transportation experts remained constant or increased at one-quarter of intersections where that data was reported.
The findings mean municipalities need to consider carefully before installing cameras and analyze crash results regularly, consumer advocates say.
Local leaders should "be judicious and know why crashes are happening," Chicago AAA Director of Public Affairs Beth Mosher said.
"No one has faith in these cameras," Illinois Campaign for Political Reform Chairwoman Susan Garrett said, citing an ongoing corruption case in Chicago.
Red-light cameras started popping up at suburban locations in the late 2000s. Critics complain they're a cash cow for municipalities and the bulk of $100 tickets are issued to drivers for the relatively low-risk infraction of a "rolling" right turn, not for driving straight through on a red light.
The cameras are lucrative for some towns. A 2015 Daily Herald analysis showed Lakemoor made $2.2 million from red-light cameras in 2014. Rosemont made $1.2 million from the cameras that year. In all, the cameras contributed more than $12 million to suburban coffers in 2014.
But in Illinois' second largest city, "we haven't had anywhere we feel it's not been effective," said Aurora traffic Sgt. Dan Woods. Woods said safety, not money, is the objective.
"From the revenue standpoint, with the camera at New York and Commons (for example), we pay more than we generate in revenue," he said.
The Daily Herald analyzed total crashes and injury-related and hazardous crashes at intersections with red-light cameras in 29 suburbs, primarily using data from one- and three-year reports towns provide to the Illinois Department of Transportation. Not every town broke down the occurrences into rear-end, turning, angle, head-on, injury and other crashes, however.
To allow for comparisons among intersections with cameras installed at different times, crash results before and after camera installation were averaged over the years for which data was available.
The findings included:
• Injury crashes increased or remained the same at 48.8 percent of the 43 intersections where occurrences of that type were broken out.
• Crashes considered hazardous by traffic experts, such as angle, turning, head-on and sideswipe (not rear-end) collisions, increased or remained the same on average at 23.5 percent of 51 intersections after cameras arrived.
• Total crashes increased on average at 14.5 percent of 55 suburban intersections with red-light cameras, according to IDOT data.
At the majority of intersections, overall crashes, on average, decreased post-cameras. But the outliers raise questions about one-size-fits-all solutions, consumer advocates said.
Even though the cameras are automatic, the police approach isn't, local chiefs said.
In Aurora, officers analyze crashes for patterns and solutions, conducting five-year reviews and asking whether crashes are happening for another reason, such as roadway design, Woods said.
Once a camera captures a violation, police officers review the video before a citation is issued in every town.
"You always have people complaining about cameras because it's enforcement without the ability to have communication with an officer," Rolling Meadows Deputy Chief Mark Hogan said. "I think we run a very aboveboard, fair-handed level of video review and we reject about half of what the vendor captures. We're not trying to pimp the public. We understand $100 is a lot of money."
Police officials had differing opinions on the direct impact of cameras on crashes.
"There are so many different variables. You can have a change in traffic patterns with construction bringing greater or less volumes, then there's weather and other factors," Hogan said.
In one case, the Daily Herald's analysis showed overall crashes decreased by 29 percent at North Avenue (Route 64) and Villa Avenue in Villa Park after cameras were installed. But injury crashes increased by 133 percent, rising from 3.3 a year pre-camera to 7.7 after, using a three-year average.
Villa Park Chief Robert Pavelchik said the methodology is unfair.
"If I were to analyze any numbers and see a high number that appears to be unusual, that number and its root causes would need to be explored," he said.
"Reported injuries in traffic crashes are only a subset of total crashes," Pavelchik said. "In law enforcement, we tend to focus on reducing total crashes since many of the variables that lead to injuries are in the control of the drivers. Any abnormal event, say 10 passengers in a bus with class 'C' bumps and bruises reported in a single crash, will then skew the numbers. Total traffic crashes at North and Villa are down according to the IDOT data."
The same method, however, of averaging crashes is standard procedure when towns request IDOT approval for cameras and in one- and three-year reports.
In Wauconda, at Route 176 and Main Street, overall crashes declined by 15 percent after camera installation. Injury crashes rose by 143 percent, increasing from an average of 0.7 crashes a year pre-camera to 1.7 after, using a three-year average.
Wauconda Village Administrator Douglas K. Maxeiner said 2012 saw higher than normal injuries from crashes at Route 176 and Main Street.
But he noted that elsewhere in the village, at Bonner Road and Route 12, crashes dropped by 23 percent after cameras went up in 2009. After the cameras were removed in September 2011, police reported the crash rate spiked by 90 percent, Maxeiner said.
Elk Grove Village reported the same story. Cameras were taken down at Busse Road and Devon Avenue in January 2011 after crashes dropped. But a surge in collisions led to the decision to reinstall the devices in fall 2011.
"We were the first community to do a test like that," Mayor Craig Johnson said, adding the village continually analyzes camera results. "Our hope was that we had changed drivers' habits."
But total crashes aren't the whole story.
In Des Plaines, total crashes at Golf and Rand roads dropped by 24 percent based on a three-year average pre-camera and one year of data after camera installation, provided by IDOT. But hazardous (angle, turning and sideswipe) crashes jumped from an average of 5.7 a year to 7 in 2011, a 23 percent increase.
"Any intersection that shows a potential for serious personal injury/fatality crashes is of concern. Based on almost 40 years in law enforcement, I believe that distracted driving and failure to obey traffic control devices (with or without photo enforcement) are the primary causes of traffic crashes," Des Plaines Police Chief Bill Kushner said.
The bottom line for towns such as Villa Park is that crashes at camera intersections have been reduced, Pavelchik said.
But "to what level the red-light cameras contributed to that reduction is part of the discussion often based on what side of the fence you are on," he noted. "Pro-camera advocates will say the cameras caused the reduction, anti-camera folks will say they didn't."
Transportation engineer P.S. Sriraj said crash increases at intersections after camera installation are not uncommon. "In fairness, you cannot contribute all successes to the cameras or all failures to the cameras," he said.
Bensenville Police Chief Frank Kosman, however, thinks the cameras create a more savvy driver. "It makes people more aware when they're coming to an intersection," he said. "I myself am more careful when pulling up to a yellow light."
The science of red-light cameras is evolving and so is data collection, which needs to be carefully controlled, said Sriraj, interim executive director at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Urban Transportation Center.
Before opting for cameras, AAA recommends municipalities first try physical and operational improvements to intersections.
Those include studying signal timing, adding turn lanes, checking the visibility of traffic lights and ensuring yellow lights' duration meets national standards.
Garrett recalled the ongoing corruption case involving camera vendor Redflex and its prior contract with Chicago. Redflex had provided cameras to Aurora, Carol Stream, Geneva and Gurnee.
One way to restore public trust is providing more data, Garrett said.
"Facts speak louder than anything," Garrett said. "If you put the facts out there, it should answer any questions."
• Coming Monday: How changes in Illinois accident reporting requirements gave red-light cameras a boost.