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Traffic camera concerns

Chicago now has one of the best red light camera deals in the country – and should be careful to maintain that distinction as it adds speed detectors to cameras around schools and parks, according to a new report from Illinois PIRG.

Chicago’s $84 million deal with Redflex Traffic Systems is the largest automated traffic enforcement contract in the nation, and it stands out because Chicago pays Redflex for the equipment, but the city’s transportation department operates the system, Celeste Mieffren of Illinois PIRG said.

That eliminates some of the worst features of the privatized traffic enforcement industry found in the report, particularly incentives like ticket quotas and disincentives for safety improvements that “put profits over public safety.”

“The good news is that Illinois and the City of Chicago have done a decent job of implementing protections for the public in these contracts,” said Meiffren. “But with this new bill to expand the scope of automated traffic enforcement in Chicago, we want to make sure that they don’t fall into the same traps that we’ve seen in other places across the country.”

Chicago plans to add speed detectors to red light cameras near schools and parks under legislation now making its way through Springfield.

The automated traffic enforcement industry has “significant political clout,” deploying lobbyists and campaign contributions to shape traffic enforcement policy – and sometimes traffic safety policy – in ways that boost their bottom line, according to the report.

One example:  some Redflex contracts penalize cities that alter yellow light timing – though adding a second or two to the length of a yellow light can reduce stoplight violations and accidents dramatically.

With 2,000 camera systems nationally, accounting for 40 percent of the market, Redflex is the largest supplier of automated traffic enforcement systems in the nation.

Many cities are turning to automated traffic enforcement under pressure from budget deficits, according to the report.  In general, it’s part of a larger trend of outsourcing management of public services.

Local governments should put public safety over profits in these contracts, and should make sure contracts protect from conflicts of interest, avoid incentives based on volume of tickets or fines, and retain control over traffic policy and engineering decisions, according to the report.

The group urges cities to heed Federal Highway Authority recommendations and consider traffic engineering solutions for problem roadways before turning to enforcement.

The Active Transportation Alliance, which supports the speed enforcement cameras, is doing that kind of work.  With its Better Blocks and Safe Routes to School programs, the group helps communities plan for improving traffic safety to encourage more walking and biking, said Ethan Spotts.

Planning experts from ATA meet with community members in libraries, schools, and block parties, tour areas and get input, and help develop recommendations for improvements to calm traffic, which can include curb bulb-outs, stop signs, or improved lighting and intersection marking.  Many improvements are funded by aldermanic menu money, Spotts said

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Category: city budget, privatization, transportation

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