No one likes red-light cameras. It's not just that they're automated, soulless hall monitors. It's not just that they're operated by semi-sleazy third parties that keep a big chunk of ticket revenue. It's also the fact that they seem like desperate ploys for cash.
How much cash? In Chicago, Illinois, the answer is: a lot. And thanks to a recent change in the city's red-light camera rules, the sum has grown nearly $8 million larger.
WHO, WHAT, WHEN
Until last spring, Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. oversaw Chicago's network of red-light cameras, maintaining the devices and mailing out citations to motorists. Then, the city switched operators, signing a contract with Xerox State and Local Solutions.
Chicago's inspector general, Joseph Ferguson, reports that Redflex had been instructed to toss out any red-light violations recorded at intersections with yellow-light times below three seconds. But when Xerox took over, the standard changed: Xerox was allowed to issue tickets at intersections with yellow-light times "above 2.9 seconds".
The shift in wording is subtle, and that tenth of a second may seem small, but both made a huge difference to city coffers.The change generated an additional 77,000 red-light tickets and, at $100 a pop, new fines of $7.7 million.
The good news is that, even though Chicago insists that a tenth of a second is an acceptable deviation for yellow lights, the inspector general has suggested that the city toss out red-light tickets issued at intersections with yellow-light times below three seconds. He understands that the tickets are technically legal, but suggests that keeping the yellow-light minimum at three seconds is important to maintaining the public's confidence in city administrators.
The city has balked, but judges have listened, and so far, hundreds of citations have been tossed out -- as many as 499 by the Tribune's count. Also, the city has quietly asked Xerox not to process any citations at intersections with yellow-light times below three seconds.
We understand that cities are strapped for cash. We also understand that automation of ticketing can free up officers to work on other tasks and can potentially make cities safer.
But we also understand that if cities are going to take these measures, they need to be clear about their processes to the public. That's not only fair, it also generates a feeling of trust with citizens -- trust that may already be on shaky ground due to the presence of red-light cameras in the first place.
And just so we're clear, city administrators aren't the only ones to blame here. Xerox is, too -- especially since it claims to have a policy of outreach and education on traffic cams:
"[N]o photo enforcement solution is complete without public education. We work with you to tailor an effective public relations plan that conveys key safety messages and addresses the concerns in your community."
Given the way this has played out, no one's won -- not the city, not Xerox, and certainly not the citizens of Chicago. Hopefully, some of them can get refunds on their flawed red-light tickets (though we're not holding out breath).