Let’s get this out of the way up front: red-light cameras are a racket.

Since the devices first started gaining in popularity in the past decade in and around the Chicago area, they are universally reviled by drivers. Not because people don’t want their streets to be safer, but because red-light cameras cause as much bad driving behavior as they prevent. 

People are so scared of getting slapped with a $100 ticket, they will slam on their brakes to avoid risking going through a yellow light, thereby causing more rear-end accidents. They prevent people from being the second person to turn left on a yellow light for fear the first car will be too slow, and put them in the intersection while the light’s red. 

Other motorists simply, steadfastly refuse to turn right on red — even though the maneuver is perfectly legal — because they just don’t trust those in charge of approving the tickets.

The reason for the latter stubbornness, of course, is that red-light violations are given overwhelmingly to those who may coast through a red light as they make that right turn. Not to minimize the importance of stopping at a red light before turning red, but the purpose of the cameras, citizens are repeatedly told, is to prevent the dangerous right-angle crashes that occur when people run red lights. While that may be the case (in North Riverside’s case, we’re not sure what the numbers are), many nationwide studies through the years have noted that rear-end crashes have increased.

Municipalities have had a mixed reaction to red-light cameras. Some, like Chicago, are enthusiastic red-light camera supporters. Others, like Schaumburg, scrapped their cameras after only a short time.

One of the reasons for that, North Riverside is finding out, is that people simply won’t pay the tickets. As of March, the village had more than $400,000 in unpaid red-light tickets on the books. It’s trying to recoup that amount through the state’s debt recovery program, but that has only netted about $50,000 so far.

But another reason the red-light cameras are a racket is that the only ones who are seemingly benefiting from the programs are the red-light camera companies who, as far as we can tell, do nothing but install cameras and rake in piles of cash.

North Riverside’s contract with their previous vendor, Redflex, was particularly egregious. The company got $4,000 per month per camera for “maintenance” along with a small surcharge per ticket. The village was on the hook for approving the tickets and going after scofflaws.

And as long as Redflex got its “maintenance” fee, who cares about scofflaws? The company is walking away from North Riverside with (assuming just three years of four operational cameras) almost $600,000 in “maintenance” fees. North Riverside collected $16,800. That’s outrageous.

The village’s new deal with SafeSpeed (which gets $500 per month per camera and $40 per ticket) seems like a better deal for the village, which will again serve as a cash register for a red-light company while providing a dubious benefit to everyone else.