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Analysis shows red-light cameras up in places with few related crashes
By Joseph Ryan and Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff

A camera at the intersection of Biesterfield Road and I-290 in Elk Grove Village watches for drivers who violate red-light laws.

 

Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Though few red-light-related crashes have occurred at the intersection of Biesterfield Road and I-290 in Elk Grove Village, a camera was installed nonetheless to ticket red-light violators.

 

Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

A red-light camera eyes traffic along Biesterfield at the I-290 entrance ramp in Elk Grove Village. Officials say the camera is needed in part because it's a tough spot to patrol. Accident statistics show few crashes at the site related to red-light running.

 

Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Southbound cars pass the red-light camera at the intersection of Route 59 and Smith Road in Wayne. Few crashes occurred at the intersection due to red-light running before the camera was installed.

 

Mark Black | Staff Photographer

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Published: 7/13/2009 12:02 AM

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Second in a series

Thousands of cars file daily off Biesterfield Road onto I-290 southbound in Elk Grove Village.

Rushing to work and home, those motorists provide a steady stream of $100 red-light tickets for the village and camera company, mostly caught for not coming to a complete stop before turning right off Biesterfield.

Elk Grove Village officials say the money is all about safety.

But in the three years before that camera went up, not one broadside and just three turning-related crashes - those normally associated with red-light running - occurred on average at that intersection.

Clashing with the championed motive for red-light cameras - safety - a Daily Herald investigation reveals numerous cameras are going up at intersections in the West, North and Northwest suburbs where few crashes occur due to red-light running.

The revelation is another outgrowth of the newspaper's "Seeing Red" series examining the spread of red-light cameras in the suburbs. The series first pointed out how most $100 tickets are going to right-turn violations, which some experts say are not a serious safety concern.

Meanwhile, 20 out of 106 suburban intersections that have or may get cameras had fewer than four red-light running related crashes a year, on average, an analysis of available crash data show.

Of those, three intersections had a yearly average of one or less crash likely related to red-light running.

While no set standard exists for where red-light cameras should be installed to improve safety, federal guidelines say broadly that a "high" number of related crashes are needed to justify such enforcement.

Experts say the low number of crashes found by the Daily Herald at several intersections with red-light cameras only underscores the need for clearer standards. They also say a single authority is required to oversee camera installation and ensure it is being used judiciously.

"You need to require a safety justification for these cameras," says Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development in Chicago. "It helps keep the system from spinning out of control or being overused."

Richard Retting, author of several red-light camera studies and a proponent of their use, equated sending out hundreds of tickets at a low-crash intersection to "putting someone on a diet who already weighs 90 pounds."

However, police chiefs and mayors who push for those cameras argue that low crash rates should not exclude the use of cameras to catch violators. They say a high number of violations alone can justify a camera issuing $100 tickets 24 hours a day.

"I don't think you need to make the correlation" between violations and crashes, says Rolling Meadows Police Chief Steven Williams, one of the suburbs' biggest red-light supporters. "If we change that bad behavior, ultimately we make the intersection safer."

Rolling Meadows put its first camera at the intersection of Rohlwing and Kirchoff roads, which had a three-year average of three broadside or turning crashes.

Williams said the camera was still warranted, in part, because of a high number of violations recorded by the vendor, RedSpeed, in a survey. The camera companies commonly survey intersections for violations and then use that information as a selling point to village officials.

Likewise, Elk Grove Village police officials say the I-290/Biesterfield Road camera is important for safety because it is a difficult spot for officers to monitor, it is an ambulance route and it's notorious for near-crashes.

In fact, Deputy Police Chief Dion Zinnel said a serious rollover recently occurred at the intersection.

"When you have that kind of traffic volume going through the intersection, the potential is always there for a traffic crash," Zinnel said. "Whether you get one or not is another story."

For comparison, Elk Grove Village has cameras running at two other busy intersections, one with an average of nearly seven red-light running related crashes a year and another with more than 30.

With seven cameras running between November of last year and March, the village sent out about 10,000 tickets, amounting to nearly $1 million in fines, the proceeds of which are split between the camera company and the village. Statistics on the I-290/Biesterfield camera tickets are not yet available.

Potential for abuse

Some experts say the wide disparity in where red-light cameras are allowed in the suburbs leaves great potential for governments to use them as a cash cow, even in places where they are likely to have little measurable safety benefit.

And some police officials do agree that an oversight board for using red-light cameras would be helpful, if at least to improve public perception.

"Even the appearance is better when you have someone looking over it," Schaumburg Deputy Chief Paul Rizzo said.

Schaumburg is set to abandon its red-light camera program after outrage from residents slapped with right-turn violations near Woodfield Shopping Center. Village officials believe the number of tickets didn't justify the possibility of improving safety at that intersection.

Yet many police chiefs and mayors the Daily Herald questioned felt the high number of violations at intersections with apparently low crash rates provides enough justification for a red-light camera even if those violations are drivers crawling through a right turn on red.

The law is the law, they say.

"If we can do anything to curtail crashes, that is a positive effect," Wayne Police Chief Dan Callahan said. "(The camera) makes the motoring public safe, and it doesn't tie up my officers."

The village of Wayne placed a camera along busy Route 59 at Smith Road, where about three turning or broadside crashes occur a year on average. The camera generates about 100 tickets a month.

Callahan said the site is the scene of numerous right-turn violations, and it has the most crashes of any intersection in the small community.

Red-light camera companies also pose the argument that violations alone can justify a camera.

"We see a tremendous amount of just-missed crashes in those locations," says Gatso USA President Andrew Noble of sites with low crash rates but high violations.

Massachusetts-based Gatso operates cameras in Hanover Park, Streamwood and Lake Zurich, where one red-light camera intersection, Rand Road and June Terrace, has an average of 1.9 crashes a year likely related to red-light running.

On the other hand, the Daily Herald pointed out in its first article in the "Seeing Red" investigative series that right-turn-on-red violations are not necessarily a considerable safety hazard when drivers are crawling along.

At six suburban intersections with cameras where the Daily Herald analysis showed relatively low crash rates, the majority of the tickets issued in those communities are for right turns, police officials say. At three intersections, the villages do not ticket right turns on red because they do not see them as a primary safety issue.

Still, some experts say cameras may not be justified at intersections with low crash rates even if there is a high number of violations, particularly turning right on red.

"There are locations where it is possible to issue a very large number of tickets and not have a large impact on safety if there was not a problem to begin with," said Retting, a former researcher for the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.

Schaumburg officials agree.

After supporting cameras for months, village officials are moving to drop the program. A review of crash data indicated there were few crashes at local intersections directly related to red-light running when officials looked closer at the use of cameras recently.

The review found not one of the suburb's busy intersections last year had more than three crashes directly related to red-light running, even though some of those sites had about 15 crashes a year, on average.

Schaumburg officials concluded that a red-light camera at Woodfield and Meacham roads, which had been set up as a test site and issued 10,251 right-turn tickets over just three months, was not warranted.

The real solution?

Instead, they found an engineering change was a better way to reduce crashes and they added a right-turn arrow to help traffic flow.

That is exactly the kind of thinking pushed by engineers across the country.

Federal guidelines and the Institute for Transportation Engineers encourage communities to first see if intersection modifications will reduce violations and improve safety on their own. Options include extending yellow signal times, creating dedicated turn lanes and changing traffic signal timing.

"Our traffic laws are based on what is reasonable and proper," said Thomas Brahms, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based ITE. "When you start to have a significant number violations, you have to look at what is causing that. Either it is not designed right or we have the problem of a mass violation based on changing socio attitudes."

Engineering very well may be at the heart of problems at one intersection highlighted by the Daily Herald. In Wauconda, the intersection of Rand and Bonner roads was the scene of an average of one turning crash and zero broadside crashes in the three years before the suburb asked the state for a red-light camera.

State transportation officials questioned the need for a camera given the low rate of crashes, and they even issued a preliminary denial.

Part of the intersection's problem, says Deputy Police Chief Tony Jacobson, is the lack of a dedicated right-turn lane, leading drivers to pull onto the shoulder in heavy traffic. He said it is "probably accurate" that fixing the road might make it safer, "but no one is going to have the money to do that."

Meanwhile, the site is slated for a camera.

The Illinois Department of Transportation eventually relented in its refusal to grant a camera after Wauconda Police Superintendent Dan Quick contested the problem, arguing there was a significant number of violations at the site.

"To say that our crash rate is low is a good thing, but to deny placement of cameras without considering the number of red light violators at that location seems to miss the point - the cameras are an enforcement tool, not a crash prevention tool," Quick wrote in a letter to IDOT.

Patchwork oversight

Part of the confusion and argument over where cameras should go can be traced to Illinois' patchwork oversight.

No single authority oversees camera installation or use. The government that controls the intersection has the final say on whether cameras can be installed, and that could be a municipality, county or the state.

So, when suburbs like Wauconda, Elk Grove Village and Carol Stream want to put up cameras on state routes, the state requires they apply for a permit.

In eight such cases, the Daily Herald found IDOT officials raising questions about why low-crash-rate intersections would necessitate red-light cameras. In half of those cases, IDOT officials eventually relented after police chiefs argued high violation rates, pedestrian traffic or other reasons justified the use.

While sporadic, the state questioning appeared to focus on intersections that had fewer than four red-light-running-related crashes.

IDOT's traffic operations chief for the Chicago region, Steve Travia, who oversees the permit process, said there are no definitive standards on how many crashes would justify a red light or how many violations would be considered "high." Decisions to accept a camera are to a great degree made on a "judgment call" and the input of local officials, he said.

"At the end of the day, it is the officers who see things we don't," Travia said. "They know day in and day out what the situation really is on the street."

State policy doesn't specify a threshold of crashes for approval.

Meanwhile, standards at the county level appear just as flexible. Cook and DuPage counties do not yet have a permit application process, so they reject all applications for now.

Kane, Lake and McHenry counties require municipalities to detail the number of crashes related to red-light running, but no specific minimum standard is stipulated.

At the federal level, which has no formal authority over camera installation, guidelines say they should go in places where this is a "high" number of red-light-running-related crashes. Again, no number is specified.

Regulators say they find it difficult to put a specific number on crash requirements because of other factors involved, including the crash severity, traffic volume and the presence of pedestrians.

The lack of standards though has clearly led to the push for and placement of cameras where their is little crash data to justify them.

Carl Schoedel, head of Kane County's transportation department, recently butted heads with the county's sheriff, Pat Perez, over installing a camera at I-88 and Orchard Road. While the sheriff said a camera company survey found a significant number of violations, there was just one related crash in the past four years.

Schoedel and county officials opposed the plan, concluding a camera would not improve safety at an intersection with so few crashes.

"That is one of the things that frankly my staff is struggling with right now," Schoedel said, referring to intersections that have high violations but few related crashes. "And it really comes down to the basic philosophy that there is a limited judicious use of red-light running enforcement and they do not belong at every signalized intersection."

• Daily Herald research manager John Graham contributed to this report.