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Cameras don't take dangerous drivers off the street
By Dan Carden and Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 7/14/2009 12:01 AM | Updated: 7/14/2009 12:13 AM

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Red-light cameras improve safety on Illinois roads by putting a pricey penalty - $100 - on drivers who run a traffic light, proponents say.

But the most dangerous drivers, those who potentially threaten others every time they get behind the wheel, will never lose their license as a result of red-light cameras as long as they pay their tickets.

Under Illinois law, no matter how many times a driver gets snapped by a red-light camera, they can keep on driving without any further consequences as long as they pay the ticket.

That fact does bother some police officers who are used to being able to keep repeat offenders off the road through license suspensions and revocations.

"We prefer that there be a consequence to the ticket," said Mark Wilkans, acting director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. "A consequence makes it a better safety measure."

But Illinois law doesn't allow that.

In order for camera tickets to legally impact a driver's record, they would have to take a photograph of the motorist and issue a ticket only enforceable against that person.

That is how speed camera tickets work on Illinois highway construction zones. The ticket is issued to the registered owner, but if the owner isn't visible in the driver seat, the ticket is thrown out. Accumulating those kind of tickets will quickly lead to a license suspension.

Additionally, when a driver racks up three regular moving violations for running a red light, speeding or blowing through a stop sign in any 12-month period that person's license is suspended by the Illinois Secretary of State's Office.

Red-light cameras, meanwhile, are treated more like parking tickets, enforceable only against the vehicle owner regardless of who was driving. Unlike with regular moving violations, there is no central database of red-light camera violators.

Back in the 1990s when several suburbs were hoping to turn local moving violations into ordinance infractions - much like a red-light camera ticket - to keep the fine money, some elected officials raised safety concerns.

Then-Secretary of State George Ryan sued in 1998 to stop the practice. A state appeals court agreed with Ryan that the secretary of state needs to know about violators to keep the worst ones off the road.

"By allowing offenders to circumvent the court, the alternative traffic programs derail one of the Secretary of State's most important duties - monitoring traffic offenders through reports of convictions," wrote Justice Thomas R. Rakowski in the ruling. "The Secretary of State can only effectively execute these exclusive duties when traffic offense convictions are reported."

But the current secretary of state, Jesse White, is fine with not knowing about red-light tickets issued by a camera and kept from the state's tally.

"For someone who gets a ticket based on a red-light camera it's not the same as a police officer," said spokesman Dave Druker.

Meanwhile, there have been some proposals to address the inherent problem with not tracking red-light runners, said Wilkans.

One idea is to suspend the license plates of vehicles that accumulate numerous camera violations. That would potentially keep the car off the road, at least partially impacting the driver even though they can get in another car and drive.

Even with this plan, however, there are certain legal and logistical problems. For one, there is no central database of scofflaws. Right now that information is kept by the private companies running the cameras.

"It is a complicated situation," Wilkans says. "But if somebody racks up dozens and dozens of tickets and then they kill a family of five, there is going to be a lot of questions asked."