Cameras snag right-hand turners, but are they making roads safer?

  • Red light camera at the northbound intersection of Route 31 with Route 64 in downtown St. Charles.

    Red light camera at the northbound intersection of Route 31 with Route 64 in downtown St. Charles. Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • The red light camera notification sign at the intersection of Arlington Heights and Higgins Roads in Elk Grove.

    The red light camera notification sign at the intersection of Arlington Heights and Higgins Roads in Elk Grove. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • A Drivers turn right on red light at intersection of Rt. 59 and North Aurora Thursday in Naperville.

    A Drivers turn right on red light at intersection of Rt. 59 and North Aurora Thursday in Naperville. Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

Published: 7/12/2009 12:00 AM

We've all done it.

Slowed down at the red light, checked for traffic and made a right turn.

It's against the law in Illinois.

And a Daily Herald investigation shows the majority of tickets issued by red-light cameras in at least 16 West, North and Northwest suburbs are for right-hand turns.

In some communities, 90 percent of the camera tickets are for right turns, leading to a solid revenue stream at $100 a ticket, according to information the Daily Herald obtained through Freedom of Information requests.

In many cases, drivers do stop before turning right -- just not at the marked line -- and still end up with an expensive citation.

Meanwhile, just a sliver of the red-light camera tickets are for blowing through a red light, a much more dangerous offense that the camera companies use as a major selling point to convince village leaders the technology will save lives and deter drivers from speeding through red lights into cross traffic.

The high rate of right-hand turn tickets is prompting experts to question the placement of cameras at certain intersections and whether the punishment fits the crime. And many drivers hit with the tickets complain it's got nothing to do with safety, but instead is just another way for government to get your money.

The right-turn ticket explosion even prompted Schaumburg to pull its unpopular but lucrative camera near Woodfield Shopping Center and officials are poised to get rid of all red-light cameras for good.

In fact, several communities, such as Carol Stream, don't issue right-turn citations caught by the cameras because officials say that's not the point. "I'm only concerned with the people going straight ahead or the people turning left in front of the cars coming," Carol Stream Mayor Frank Saverino said.

Yet, officials in communities that issue the right-turn tickets say they're making driving safer by issuing tickets for what's clearly a violation of the law.

In Rolling Meadows, where about 80 percent of tickets are for right turns on red, Deputy Police Chief Dave Scanlon defends the tickets, saying, "The law is the law. We're looking to increase traffic safety."

The sales pitch

A review of promotional materials and local council minutes shows that when camera companies, such as RedSpeed, Redflex, Gatso or Lasercraft, make their pitch, the sound bite isn't "you'll catch a lot of people going right on red at 5 mph." Instead, the talk is of fatalities and serious crashes, which experts say aren't generally caused by right turns on red.

The Daily Herald obtained records from 28 municipalities with cameras currently operating. Of the 16 municipalities that issue citations for right turns and were able to break down their violation data, 100 percent acknowledged the majority of their tickets come from right turns. The total of right-turn citations going out per town ranged from 100 percent to 64 percent. Six municipalities estimated the rate of right-turn tickets was 90 percent or higher of the total violations.

Three communities do not issue right-turn on red tickets with their cameras.

Surveys completed by camera companies at intersections before installation also showed that right turns comprised the majority of violations.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data analyzing vehicle maneuvers and accidents shows that 0.8 percent -- less than 1 percent -- of fatal crashes in 2007 occurred when a driver was turning right.

The prevalence of right-turn penalties raised a red flag for DePaul University Professor Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation specialist and director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.

Going right on red "is categorically different from running through a red light. It is sloppy driving behavior," Schwieterman said.

Do the right thing

Right-on-red violators have some common complaints. They crawled through the stop at a minimal speed. They stopped -- just not at the white line. They stopped but had to creep forward to see oncoming traffic -- and that's when the camera nailed them.

At a recent red-light ticket appeal hearing in Elk Grove Village, right-turn tickets were the biggest complaint from drivers, including Robyn Williams, who lost her appeal.

"They're trying to build revenue," Williams said. "I'm angry because they're disguising it as safety.

"It's $100 without a warning in the mail. Every video I sat and watched, at least 30 of them, none of them were safety-related. It would be completely different if you were going through a red light."

If Williams did the same right turn in Lake in the Hills, St. Charles or Carol Stream, she'd be ticket free because those towns do not pursue right-turn-on-red violations caught by cameras.

"It's a question of priorities," St. Charles Police Chief Jim Lamkin said.

While acknowledging crashes occur on right turns, they aren't as severe as those where drivers go straight or turn left against the light, he said.

"People rolling right on red most of the time will not cause an accident. I know some towns are going after rights on red; our goal is traffic safety and we're using that as our guide," Lamkin said.

Shoba Vaitheeswaran, spokeswoman for Arizona-based Redflex Traffic Systems, which has contracts with more than 240 U.S. cities including Chicago and 35 local suburbs, said the company tailors its technology to fit customers' priorities.

In general, "a lot of cities don't do right-turn-on-red violations," she said. "Traditionally, cities start off with lefts and throughs."

Lombard-based RedSpeed, the other major camera vendor in the region, refused to answer questions about right-turn violations posed by the Daily Herald.

Yet, many police officials say the cameras are lifesaving when it comes to right turns.

Elk Grove Village Deputy Chief Dion Zinnel said right turns can be deadly. "I've seen pedestrians getting hit by vehicles going right on red," Zinnel said.

He realizes the violations are unpopular.

"But if it gets them to stop, it's a better thing," he said.

Wheeling police Sgt. Mike Porzycki, the department's traffic supervisor, agreed that there's a real danger from rolling rights.

Drivers "get in the habit of turning right on red and not coming to a stop. Some of the reactions are, 'I wasn't aware I have to stop.' People treat it like a green-turn arrow. But you have to come to a stop."

Scanlon, of Rolling Meadows, said people need to consider the accident victims. "If the $100 causes them to hesitate and change their driving behavior, it's been successful."

At Lake Zurich's two intersections under camera surveillance, right turns are a serious problem, Police Chief Kevin Finlon said.

"We have people going through there in excess of 20 mph trying to beat the traffic coming off the light," Finlon said. "They slow down enough to negotiate the turn but absolutely not enough to be safe."

Naperville police Sgt. Lee Martin, who heads up the city's traffic unit, said it sends mixed signals to go easy on right-turn scofflaws.

"You can't selectively enforce red-light violations. Either you enforce them all or none," Martin said. "It's not fair for me to make an independent judgment and say, you're rolling through the stop at 5 mph and the way is clear and I don't write you a ticket, but the person behind you is doing 10 mph and I do issue him a ticket. Why is that fair?"

But not everyone's on the same page in Naperville.

The city council recently debated whether to drop right-turn violations on new cameras not yet installed. The proposal was defeated 5-4 but the issue is expected to return.

Naperville Councilman Doug Krause contends the cameras are nabbing the wrong people, not the drivers speeding through red lights or turning left into oncoming traffic.

"If you want to stop someone that's who you should be trying to stop," he said.

For right-turn violators, "it's not that they're trying to break the law," Krause said. "They stop, then they move forward because they want to see if traffic is approaching. They say this is a safety issue but it's also generated a lot of revenue."

DuPage County Board Member Paul Fichtner calls the predominance of right-turn violations the technology's "dirty little secret."

"It's almost like bait and switch," said Fichtner, arguing that local officials are sold on the idea of stopping reckless behavior when they approve red light cameras but that the results don't match the hype.

Judgment call

The Daily Herald found a conflicting range of standards applied by law enforcement when it comes to deciding whether a driver gets a right-turn-on-red ticket or not.

The law states motorists facing a red light must come to a complete stop at the marked line before turning right. It's not a matter of how long you stop, but whether or not there is a "cessation of movement," officials explained.

When a violation is detected, the video footage is reviewed by employees of camera vendors, then sent to local police departments where officers look at the tape and make the call.

In most cases, police officials said, they'll let a violation go as long as the person stopped before turning -- even if it wasn't at the white line.

West Dundee Police Chief David Sawyer instructs officers to act as "if they're in a squad car." If they'd get out and write a ticket, then let the violation stand. If they'd let the person go, invalidate it, he explained, adding "it's the same power of discretion we have on the street."

Warrenville Police Chief Ray Turano said his staff won't give tickets to cars turning right that are crawling by or ones that come to a stop after the white line -- unless the driver is putting pedestrians or bicyclists at risk.

In general, "if they are creeping, that is not, to me, a safety concern," Turano said.

Little consensus

So if one town pursues right-turn violators aggressively,

and another says the focus should be on more dangerous red-light violations -- who's right?

The experts differ.

Illinois Department of Transportation engineers acknowledged that the severity of broadside and left-turn accidents are higher than right-turn crashes.

But "I don't believe you can make a blanket statement that an illegal right turn on red is necessarily a safe maneuver," said IDOT District 1 Bureau Chief of Traffic Operations Steve Travia.

"If you run a red light, you run a red light. It may be worse if a pedestrian is crossing. If you roll right you may not be able to see. I don't think it's fair to label all right turns in the same category," Travia said.

At the same time, Hesham Rakha, director of the Center for Sustainable Mobility at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, argues that "I don't consider a vehicle not coming to a complete stop as red-light running. What's the big deal?" he asked. In fact, he said, "a rolling stop makes it easier to merge into traffic."

DePaul's Schwieterman thinks red-light cameras are effective.

But as far as the right-turn epidemic, "It is a backdoor approach to enforcement that borders on being unfair," he said.

"There is virtually no public awareness of the stepped-up enforcement which allows governments to snatch unsuspecting motorists," he said. "I think it is hard to justify on safety reasons alone."

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