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Johnson defends red-light cameras in Elk Grove Village
By Madhu Krishnamurthy | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 7/15/2009 12:00 AM

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Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson Tuesday defended his town's use of red-light photo enforcement at intersections, saying the cameras save lives and are not aimed at making money.

Johnson was responding to a Daily Herald investigation raising questions about whether the nearly 84 cameras in 28 North, West and Northwest suburbs are located at intersections where they will improve safety or are placed where they would raise the most revenue.

"I guess you can say that's true with every ticket that's issued," Johnson said. "I guess all tickets should be disbanded because all tickets are moneymakers."

Johnson said when police first started using radar guns to nab speeders, it didn't cause a public uproar like red-light cameras generate now.

"Red-light camera is another tool that's now available that's no different from a radar gun and other methods used by the police department," Johnson said. "The problem here is people have gotten too lax. They've gotten too comfortable with breaking the law. The red-light cameras do nothing to you if you follow the law."

As of June 30, 2009, Elk Grove Village's seven red-light cameras generated $928,749 in their first year of operation. By comparison, the village received roughly $600,000 in revenue from other traffic tickets during that time.

Johnson said money was never the incentive for having the cameras at certain intersections over others. He said the objective always was to increase safety at top crash intersections and change driver behavior.

At Tuesday's village board meeting, Johnson presented the village's first report on red-light cameras since they were installed in July 2008.

Per the report, the number of accidents at intersections with red-light cameras decreased to 68 between January and June 2009 from 92 in 2008, a 26 percent drop. Crashes overall at village intersections for that same period also declined, from 1,006 in 2008 to 814 in 2009, a 19 percent dip.

"Driving habits are changing communitywide," Johnson said. "When you see a 20 percent reduction, that's not normal, except something is working now and it shows. It's not about money. It's about safety."

Johnson said in the past year there also has been a 36 percent decrease in the number of citations issued for red-light violations - 6,922 for the last six months of 2008 compared to 4,436 for the first six months of 2009.

Crashes related to red-light running generally fall into two categories - broadside and turning.

Village officials, however, did not provide a breakdown of the type of accidents that occurred at the intersections - data considered to be essential to determining if cameras are warranted. Transportation experts also say that it's important to compare several years of statistics in order to show if cameras are improving safety or not.

"You're right, we don't know and that's why we are going to continue to monitor it year after year," Johnson said. "We don't see that kind of reduction normally. That kind of drop is outside the realm of coincidence."

Johnson specifically addressed the intersection of Biesterfield Road and I-290, where a camera has generated a lot of criticism and revenue. The camera went up on eastbound Biesterfield at the I-290 entrance ramp in March 2009. In the three years before that, only three turning-related and no broadside crashes occurred on average.

Johnson showed videos of a rollover accident and several near misses from red-light violations at that intersection, including one where a motorist blowing a red light swerved to miss an oncoming vehicle turning left.

"There is high traffic volume there because of the expressway on-ramps and off-ramps," Johnson said. "It's hard to enforce there. That is why we thought it was an important intersection to have cameras. The basis is just not always pure accident numbers."

One of the more controversial aspects of the surveillance program is that the majority of tickets are for right-turns on red, a violation that is less dangerous than going straight through or turning left on red, experts say.

Frequently, motorists are caught by cameras in the act of rolling right or a driver may stop but is ticketed while crawling forward to view oncoming traffic.

Numerous ticketed drivers and transportation researchers have said that the focus should be on left-turn or straight-through violators, but Johnson disagreed.

He said right-hand turns cause far more accidents than generally believed because they create a ripple effect.

Elk Grove Village police had told the Daily Herald that the majority of tickets issued were for right turns on red when questioned for the series of articles, but officials Tuesday did not release any specific figures.

Despite neighboring Schaumburg's move to eliminate red-light cameras entirely, Johnson said the cameras are there to stay in his town. He added officials will be considering other intersections that could benefit from red-light cameras.

"We'll see how many we're going to go to down the road," he said. "We are taking it one step at a time. We're not trying to give tickets. We are trying to get drivers to follow the law."