Daily Herald
Many tickets, but no suspensions for multiple red light violators
By Joseph Ryan and Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 7/14/2009 12:01 AM | Updated: 7/14/2009 12:14 AM

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More than 100,000 red-light camera tickets have been issued to motorists in the West, North and Northwest suburbs since such enforcement began spreading three years ago.

Millions more tickets have been issued in other suburbs and in Chicago, which has had scores of cameras since 2003.

And as many as a quarter of all tickets go unpaid, according to a Daily Herald analysis.

But not once - not once - has a driver's license been suspended for accumulating five unpaid tickets, the penalty laid out by Illinois law, officials say.

That could be because no single entity is allowed to actually keep track of how many tickets go unpaid across different suburbs and camera systems.

Now some are raising questions about whether better oversight is needed to help keep dangerous drivers off the road.

"If you are blowing stop lights and not paying the tickets, that shows a pattern of behavior which relates to safety," said state Sen. John Millner, an Elmhurst Republican and the suburb's former police chief. "Their license should be suspended."

Millner and others are concerned that under the current system, a motorist could blow red lights in several towns, never pay the tickets and keep on driving as long as he or she doesn't rack up more than five in one place.

Meanwhile, red-light camera tickets do not end up on a driver's state record because they are treated like a parking ticket. No number of paid tickets will get a flagrant violator out from behind the wheel.

Millner would like to see a central database for violations. So, too, would Joe DiJohn, a professor with the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who believes the lack of suspensions only reinforces the perception that the cameras are for only raising cash.

"This tends to prove the theory that these tickets are basically a source of revenue and not for the purpose of improving safety," DiJohn said.

So far, the Daily Herald's "Seeing Red" series also has revealed that a majority of red-light tickets are for less-dangerous right-turn infractions, that appeal rates vary across the suburbs, and cameras are going up at intersections that historically don't have a problem with violation-related crashes.

Millner voted for the original legislation authorizing red-light cameras; his perspective has changed.

"Looking at the number of potential abuses," Milners said of the revelations in the Daily Herald's "Seeing Red" series, "I couldn't vote for it again."

The lack of driver's license suspensions gets to the heart of another often-criticized issue with red-light cameras: The ticketing essentially is a private enterprise.

"This opens up a whole box of cans of worms," DiJohn said.

In the suburbs, the red-light camera companies largely control the entire enterprise of taking photos, issuing tickets, keeping a database and going after scofflaws. The chief job left for local police is to log into a system almost daily to view photos and video of violations the camera company found.

Police get the final say on issuing a ticket. But the public can't see the justification for those tickets.

Under Illinois law, the image of the car explicitly is made a private record, not open to public view except for officers, judges and the vehicle owner. In most suburbs, if not all, the records on who landed violations and who paid them or didn't is kept by the camera company, not the police.

Therefore, it remains unclear how many drivers might have five unpaid tickets spread across different suburbs and camera companies.

Representatives for RedSpeed, Redflex Traffic Systems and Gatso, the region's top camera companies, all said they keep track of how many tickets go unpaid by motorists within their own databases.

As part of their contracts with suburbs, they are required to forward the names of those who have five or more unpaid tickets to those towns so they can ask the Illinois secretary of state's office to suspend the license.

Representatives for the red-light camera companies, however, didn't answer questions about whether they had ever forwarded such information to an Illinois town.

Chicago spokesman Ed Walsh said the city keeps its own massive database of tickets, unlike the suburbs. He could not provide information Monday on whether any vehicles had racked up five unpaid violations, but he did say an earlier review indicated there were none.

Walsh said it would require a change in state and local laws to share information about red-light camera violations across municipalities and camera companies.

Secretary of State spokesman Dave Druker said Monday the state's database shows no licenses have been suspended for not paying red-light camera tickets. The state would need contracts with a municipality to initiate the suspension process, and none have been signed, he said.

"We would need a contract to have a formal process to do this," Druker said.

The number of unpaid tickets in the region is significant, increasing the chance there are drivers with five unpaid tickets or more spread across the region.

In Chicago alone, more than half a million tickets were issued last year, Walsh said.

A Daily Herald analysis of red-light camera revenue compared to tickets issued shows that the amount of unpaid tickets ranges from 20 percent to 36 percent, depending on the suburb. Red-light camera companies refused to provide actual rates or industry estimates for unpaid tickets.

Several suburban police chiefs told the Daily Herald they have not been contacted by their companies about anyone not paying five or more tickets.

Prospect Heights Police Chief Bruce Morris said he wouldn't expect to have any yet considering the town's cameras have been up only since October of last year. He is not concerned about the patchwork nature of the monitoring, however.

"Right now," he says, "this is the most efficient way."

Lights: Secretary of state says contracts needed to suspend