Mr. Emanuel, Shut Down These Cameras!

The City of Chicago’s red-light camera program perfectly illustrates all of the bad things that happen when red-light cameras come to town: alleged corruption, lack of oversight, short yellow lights, ticketing errors, drivers fleeced of hundreds of millions with no clear safety benefits. In response, NMA President Gary Biller wrote the following letter to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel challenging him to pull the plug on the cameras or at least make meaningful reforms to the program. We have yet to receive a response from his honor.

August 20, 2014

The Honorable Rahm Emanuel
Office of the Mayor of Chicago
121 N. LaSalle Street
Chicago City Hall, 4th Floor
Chicago, IL 60602 

Dear Mayor Emanuel, 

Intersection safety is best accomplished by design, not by command-and-control tactics like Chicago’s red-light camera program. With growing evidence that program parameters are set for optimum revenue generation – lucrative enough at $70 million a year to attract corrupting influences – rather than safety benefits for the public, the cameras should be shut down. Some of that past revenue should be applied to the proper engineering of the city’s intersections and its 3,035 traffic signals in order to make traveling Chicago’s streets safer and less punitive. 

Program management was deemed unacceptable per the Inspector General’s May 2013 report that found a “lack of basic recordkeeping and an alarming lack of analysis for an ongoing program that costs tens of millions of dollars a year and generates tens of millions more in revenue.” It has only gotten worse. One month ago the Chicago Tribune reported thousands of undeserved red-light camera tickets were issued as a result of “faulty equipment, human tinkering, or both.” Last week Chicago Judge Robert Sussman said that he routinely dismisses the photo tickets noting, “We’re having a big problem with these yellow lights. Sixty to seventy percent are coming up under [the federal minimum and city standard] three seconds.” 

The two major U.S. cities closest to Chicago’s 2.7 million population – Los Angeles at 3.9 million and Houston at 2.2 million – both removed their red-light cameras three years ago without an appreciable change in accident statistics. That raises the question: Why does the City of Chicago need to assess tens of millions of dollars a year more in penalties to achieve intersection safety levels that aren’t much different than Los Angeles, Houston, or any other city for that matter? 

Mr. Mayor, please prove to your constituents, including groups such as Citizens to Abolish Red-Light Cameras whose ranks grow with every organized protest against the ticket cameras, that your concern is more about intersection safety than revenue generation.  

If you are not quite ready to pull the plug on the cameras altogether, then choose nine camera-equipped intersections in 30 mph speed limit zones that have high numbers of straight-through red-light violations. Increase the yellow light interval duration to 3.3 seconds at three, 3.6 seconds at a second set of three, and 4.0 seconds at the last three intersections. Have independent observers report on the straight-through violation rates over a period of at least one month and compare those results to the rates at the same intersections during a like period just before the yellow intervals were increased. The results will make it clear that the longer yellows are much more effective at reducing straight-through red-light violations than the cameras. And unless the Chicago driving environment is so unique that it bears no similarities to results other cities have attained after dropping their camera programs, the violation rates will not rebound to any notable degree after the ticket cameras are eliminated. 

You may think that you have nothing to gain and everything to lose with this challenge. This is not the case unless you consider the welfare and safety of Chicago motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians and those visiting your great city for business or leisure to be less important than maximizing the income side of the City’s budget. 


Gary Biller
National Motorists Association

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