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Lawmakers call for tighter rules for red-light cameras
By Joseph Ryan and John Patterson | Daily Herald Staff

State Rep. Jim Durkin: "I hate them. I absolutely hate them. It is strictly a moneymaking mechanism."

 

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Published: 7/16/2009 12:00 AM | Updated: 7/16/2009 6:33 AM

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Red-light cameras were shepherded into the suburbs several years ago with wide political support.

That backing is evaporating.

Numerous suburban lawmakers are now criticizing the red-light camera system in the wake of a Daily Herald investigative series that sparked questions about how and why cameras are being used. Lawmakers now are considering tighter regulations and better oversight, and some are even arguing for the outright elimination of the aggressive enforcement.

"I hate them. I absolutely hate them," said state Rep. Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican who voted for the original red-light camera legislation back in 2006. "It is strictly a moneymaking mechanism. I don't believe it goes to public safety."

The Daily Herald series revealed how most $100 red-light camera tickets go to drivers making a right turn on red without coming to a complete stop, a practice experts say is often not a significant safety concern even though it is against the law. The series also revealed how some cameras are going up at intersections where few crashes occur because of running red lights, raising questions about whether they're being used for safety or revenue.

Meanwhile, the verdict is not yet in on whether the cameras are making roads safer, particularly because of where the cameras are being used and the type of common driving behavior they are profiting from.

State Rep. Paul Froehlich, a Schaumburg Democrat who voted for red-light cameras, says he will support tighter regulation to eliminate public concern that the cameras are misused to make money.

"This tends to reinforce the public perception that these guys are trying to haul in as much cash as they can," Froehlich said. "That undercuts public support, and if you lose that, then these things could be gone entirely."

Most lawmakers asked about the Daily Herald's findings said they still support the concept of using cameras to make intersections safer, but they want better oversight to ensure the enforcement of them makes intersections safer.

"I'm generally supportive of the red-light cameras," said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat who supported the original legislation. "But I think we do need to rethink what we are doing with these things."

For now it remains unclear what lawmakers will propose as a solution, whether it be tougher standards written into law or giving a state agency authority over the installation of all cameras.

Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat who pushed for red-light cameras, said he is open to tinkering with the law to allay public concerns. But he also said that "would be tricky."

State Sen. John Millner, an Elmhurst Republican and former Carol Stream police chief, said he has been talking with police chiefs and mayors in his towns to see what could be done. He plans to introduce reform legislation next year, when the legislature starts a new session.

Passing a new law sooner is complicated by the fact that lawmakers are not in regular session and are largely dealing with budget matters.

"If the (municipalities) don't fix it themselves, I think we are going to need a legislative solution," said Millner, who gave an impassioned speech on the floor of the Senate to pass the original legislation.

Whatever reform efforts emerge at the state level, the debate is going to find partisans on both sides of the issue. At the same time, red-light camera companies are considerable campaign donors and employ clout-heavy lobbyists.

On one hand there are those like state Sen. Terry Link, who believes red-light cameras are all about safety and no regulation is needed on their use. Link is also a chief proponent of speed-enforcement cameras.

About the Daily Herald's findings on the placement of cameras at low-crash intersections, the Waukegan Democrat said picking out such examples is "easy to do."

"But no matter what you do, those people are breaking the law," Link said about drivers running red lights.

Then there are lawmakers like state Sen. Dan Duffy, a Lake Barrington Republican, who opposes red-light camera use no matter how regulated. Duffy was not in the Senate when the law was passed.

"I am completely opposed to red-light cameras and believe we should do everything we can to repeal existing laws that allow these cameras to operate in Illinois," Duffy said.

Meanwhile, others are searching for a middle ground.

State Rep. Sid Mathias, a Buffalo Grove Republican, has championed the use of camera enforcement at railroad crossings. "I just assumed communities would use common sense and use them for the purpose that we passed the law and that was safety," Mathias said of his original support for the measure.

The original legislation allowing red-light cameras in the suburbs passed with no opposition in the House and a narrow victory margin in the Senate.

Cameras: State senator plans reform legislation next year