PART 1 OF A 2-PART SERIES
Harlem Avenue is a busy road. Everyone knows that. But thanks to all that traffic, it’s recently become something else:
A gold mine.
Between January 2014 and October 2016, more than $26.5 million in red-light camera citations were issued to motorists on Harlem between North Avenue and Cermak Road. Based on those numbers, compiled as part of a Riverside-Brookfield Landmark analysis, that stretch of Harlem may be the most lucrative four-mile length of road in the entire state.
The two red-light cameras on Harlem Avenue in River Forest — at North Avenue and Lake Street — have issued more than $5.2 million in citations since the start of 2014.
And at the intersection of Harlem Avenue and Cermak Road, North Riverside and Berwyn have combined to issue more than $20.7 million in red-light camera tickets.
A pair of cameras operated by Forest Park at Roosevelt and Harlem has contributed another $550,000 to the Harlem Avenue citation totals.
Fines paid by those caught on camera have poured into local municipal coffers, and the money has enriched the owners of a privately held Chicago company that operates six of the eight Harlem cameras between North Avenue and Cermak Road.
And almost all of that money — and all of those $100 tickets yet to be paid — is from violations that traffic safety experts do not recognize as significant threats to public safety.
Ticket data show that in River Forest, North Riverside and Berwyn, 91.2 percent of citations were issued for improper right-hand turns on red. These are usually slow-rolling turns.
This offense, while illegal, generally does not lead to dangerous accidents, according to traffic studies, and crash data provided by the local municipalities does not suggest the lucrative red-light cameras have had any meaningful effect on collisions involving motorists making right-hand turns. That’s in part because there were few such crashes in these intersections to begin with.
All of the local communities where red-light cameras operate publicly sold the devices as traffic-safety measures that had ancillary benefits as revenue-generating machines. But a review of internal records provided by Berwyn and River Forest shows municipal officials chose their red-light camera vendor based on projected revenues.
Moreover, in mandated traffic studies prior to installing the cameras at Lake Street and North Avenue, records show police and village officials in River Forest were aware that almost all traffic violations at either intersection were for right-turn infractions.
But in promoting red-light cameras to the village board, and in making a public case that red-light cameras were primarily about safety, police officials in River Forest referenced traffic studies showing the devices were sometimes successful in lowering the incidence of head-on and T-bone crashes. They made no mention of right-hand turns.
That omission is striking as records show that since installing red-light cameras River Forest has issued almost $4.6 million in tickets for right-turn violations. Down the road in Berwyn, they’ve issued $8.9 million in right-turn violations. And in North Riverside, that number is a whopping $10.1 million.
Harlem and Cermak: A citation supernova
The intersection of Harlem Avenue and Cermak Road, where North Riverside and Berwyn have combined to place four red-light cameras, has generated more than $20.7 million in red-light camera citations since the start of 2014.
No government office or private organization maintains authoritative revenue numbers for red-light cameras in Illinois but the Landmark was unable to identify, during a review of published reports, another intersection in the state where citations were so aggressively issued.
All four of the cameras at Harlem and Cermak are controlled by SafeSpeed LLC, a politically connected business that has received relatively little public scrutiny despite its work in about a dozen suburban municipalities and despite records that indicate the company’s cameras produce citations at startlingly high rates.
SafeSpeed’s red-light camera at North and Harlem in River Forest has averaged $1.37 million in citations annually since the start of 2014. That performance would place the North Avenue camera among the top four red-light cameras in the entire city of Chicago, according to a Chicago Department of Transportation 2015 annual report on the city’s red-light camera program.
But the SafeSpeed cameras in Berwyn and North Riverside are in a different league altogether. The company’s camera on the northwest corner of the Harlem and Cermak intersection has averaged more than $3.4 million in annual citations since 2014. Across the street in Berwyn, the SafeSpeed camera on the southeast corner of the intersection has averaged $2.4 million in tickets during that same time period.
Those two red-light cameras may well be the most lucrative in Illinois. None of the cameras in Chicago — where the city’s sprawling red-light camera program has been the source of controversy for more than a decade — even come close to the annual ticket averages generated at Harlem and Cermak.
The most lucrative red-light camera in the city, according to CDOT figures, is located at Lake Shore Drive and Belmont Avenue. In 2015, that camera issued $1.6 million worth of citations, in what appears to have been a down year.
According to Chicago Sun-Times reporting, the Lake Shore Drive and Belmont camera between 2011 and 2015 averaged about $1.9 million in citations annually. Either way, that camera is a junior-varsity performer compared to the red-light cameras at Harlem and Cermak.
In fact, three of the four SafeSpeed cameras at Harlem and Cermak generate more tickets than any camera in the city of Chicago. The fourth SafeSpeed camera at the Harlem and Cermak intersection generates more citations than all but two of Chicago’s cameras.
Red-light cameras in River Forest
River Forest officials inked their first red-light camera contract in 2011, and the village today operates cameras on Harlem Avenue at North Avenue and Lake Street. The North Avenue camera is the village’s real moneymaker, issuing almost $3.8 million in citations since the start of 2014. That’s an average of $1.374 million in tickets per year. That number would have placed the North Avenue camera among the top four red-light cameras in Chicago in 2015.
Before the village installed red-light cameras, River Forest officials ordered internal studies from the office of Village Administrator Eric Palm and another from the police department.
Police officials were tasked with assembling “a synopsis of research relating to the safety impact on the use of red light cameras,” while Palm’s office focused on the potential revenues to the village based on contract deals with several possible red-light camera operators.
River Forest Police Chief Gregory Weiss in June 2011 reported the results of his department’s review of nationally published red-light camera research.
“Based on a literature review,” Weiss wrote, “there appear to be studies that suggest the installation of red-light cameras do eventually have a safety impact through the reduction of accidents, especially the more dangerous side impact types.”
Weiss’ memo to village officials included no details of a traffic safety study that referenced right-hand turns or the safety effects of heavily ticketing this activity.
The police department memo acknowledged that critics argue red-light cameras function primarily as revenue generators, and that Schaumburg officials removed cameras in that village “due to negative public sentiment.”
The memo also noted that other observers contend traffic engineering is a more effective remedy for accident-prone intersections. Still, the chief concluded, “The installation of red-light cameras are a viable option to enhance the effectiveness of police traffic enforcement.”
Prior to completing his memo, Weiss and his staff in the spring of 2011 collected crash data for several River Forest intersections. That crash data showed the Harlem Avenue intersections at North and Lake were the most accident-prone in the village. Between 2009 and 2010, there were a total of 21 reported accidents at Lake and Harlem, and 11 accidents at North Avenue and Harlem.
These numbers did not include a breakdown of accident type, but earlier traffic records submitted for internal review by the police department indicated about 60 percent of wrecks at North and Harlem were rear-end crashes, while about 44 percent of accidents at Lake and Harlem also involved rear-end collisions. No numbers from either data set detailed crashes involving motorists making a right-hand turn.
Few right-hand turn accidents
But crash data submitted by River Forest and SafeSpeed in a pair of “justification reports” filed with the state in late 2011 provides a detailed look at accidents in both the North Avenue and Lake Street intersections.
Those records show that in 2010, the year before River Forest implemented its red-light camera program, not one crash at North and Harlem involved a motorist making a right-hand turn. Only one such crash was recorded between 2008 and 2009.
The story was similar on Lake Street — zero accidents in 2010 involving motorists making right-hand turns from Harlem. And between 2008 and 2009, there were a total of two such accidents at Lake and Harlem.
Moreover, internal traffic studies performed in the fall of 2011 showed the vast majority of all traffic infractions in both the North Avenue and Lake Street intersections were right-turn violations.
These 24-hour traffic studies were a requirement for the village’s application to the state for permission to install the red-light cameras. At North Avenue, 87 percent of all noted violations were for improper right-hand turns. On Lake Street, 97 percent of violations were related to right-hand turns.
Crashes involving vehicles turning right at Harlem and Cermak in Berwyn and North Riverside have not been a particular problem, either. A 2013 report issued by SafeSpeed to Berwyn for the camera at northbound Harlem and Cermak showed that between 2009 and 2012 there were 103 total crashes at the intersection. Only eight involved vehicles turning right, representing a little less than 8 percent of the total.
Revenue versus safety
While Weiss and the River Forest Police Department were reading traffic studies and compiling accident data, Palm was examining potential annual revenues from a red-light camera deal. In a February 2011 memo titled, “Redlight Camera Vendor Price Comparison,” Palm compared projected revenues from five potential red-light camera vendors.
In his memo, Palm indicated he spoke with three vendors, which he identified as the “most prominent in the Chicagoland area.” These were SafeSpeed, RedFlex and RedSpeed. The latter company currently operates cameras at Harlem Avenue and Roosevelt Road in Forest Park.
In Palm’s revenue chart, SafeSpeed came out on top as returning the most ticket money to River Forest — $8,700 for every $14,000 in tickets. Runner-up RedFlex Traffic System Inc., the scandal-plagued former red-light camera operator in Chicago, yielded $8,165. The third-place firm offered final net revenues of just $6,475.
While the village administrator did not make a recommendation for any particular firm, he wrote that “[t]he purpose of this analysis is to show the ‘true cost’ of operating a red-light running camera between vendors.”
By those standards, SafeSpeed, in offering more revenue per ticket, made sense and village officials voted in April 2011 to approve a deal with the company. River Forest renewed that contract in 2014.
In an email response to written questions from the Landmark, Palm said River Forest officials chose SafeSpeed in part because it was the only company surveyed that charged a fee based on the village’s own determination of whether a violation had been committed.
“Other companies took fees from all the tickets they (the companies) believed were violators,” Palm wrote. “Meaning, even if a municipality rejected a violation from the company, the fee was still paid. We preferred SafeSpeed’s model.”
As Berwyn officials worked toward installing cameras in October 2009, a police detective who served as a liaison between the city and SafeSpeed suggested company officials also consider studying the intersection at Harlem and Roosevelt Road.
“This intersection is heavy traffic and near the 290 expressway exit, so we feel that it could be a worthwhile spot for a camera,” Det. Michael Ochsner wrote in an email to a SafeSpeed official.
That December, as the city contemplated approaching the Illinois Department of Transportation to approve cameras on Harlem at both Roosevelt and Cermak, Ochsner wrote another email seeking revenue projections in order to justify installation costs the city would incur.
“What I need from you is an estimate of the revenue (city of Berwyn revenue) that will be generated at each intersection for the first year of operation based on traffic volume and amount of violations per day,” Ochsner wrote to SafeSpeed. “I’m sure [then-Police Chief William Kushner] will sign the letter … if we can show sufficient potential revenue and get a cost estimate.”
But the public face of the red-light camera pitch was all about safety.
Police department records show Ochsner drafted letters for the chief that were required by IDOT. In one, he referenced the city’s existing red-light camera program and claimed, without proof, they prompted a “dramatic decrease in traffic crashes” in the city. Urging IDOT officials to approve additional cameras in Berwyn, Ochsner claimed they would “provide an immediate improvement in motorist safety” and he dubbed the new cameras “an urgent need.”
In the end, Berwyn installed Harlem Avenue cameras only at Cermak.
The Berwyn camera monitoring northbound lanes of Harlem Avenue at Cermak Road went live June 10, 2011. According to a SafeSpeed analysis, there were 24 crashes reported there in 2010.
In 2011, the year the camera was installed, there were 25 crashes. In 2012, the first full year after the camera was installed, there were 27, records show.
Steep cost of cameras to motorists
The true cost to motorists of red-light cameras on Harlem Avenue has been steep: More than $26.5 million in total citations and almost $16.3 million in paid tickets along the four-mile Harlem stretch in less than three years.
Under the terms of the contracts each municipality maintains with SafeSpeed, 60 percent of revenues is allocated to the towns and 40 percent flows to SafeSpeed. Forest Park could not provide revenue data for tickets issued by village cameras in the Harlem and Roosevelt intersection, and the totals referenced in this story do not include Forest Park collections.
Based on figures through the end of October 2016, River Forest’s take of red-light camera revenues since 2014 was more than $2.6 million. That money has been earmarked for capital improvements for the village, according to Palm.
Palm defended the program, saying the Landmark’s analysis didn’t take into account factors such as pedestrians or changes in traffic volume over time, factors he called “two very relevant and contextual areas of information.”
“In terms of red-light cameras, all citations issued by any governmental entity are done so with the goal of changing people’s behavior,” Palm said.
In North Riverside, the village has used more than $3.86 million in collected revenues to fund its annual police and fire pension liabilities.
Berwyn Mayor Robert Lovero did not respond to written questions from the Landmark, and the city’s 2016 budget does not indicate a specific purpose for red-light camera funds.
Expert: Enforcement at odds with camera design, purpose
Dominique Lord is a Texas A&M University civil engineering professor specializing in traffic safety. He has 20 years of experience and has performed numerous academic and real-life traffic safety studies — including a 2002 study regarding right-turn laws in his native Quebec. He also was responsible for a 2014 analysis of Chicago red-light camera data commissioned by the Chicago Tribune.
Lord told the Landmark that red-light cameras were not designed for the kind of traffic enforcement currently practiced in River Forest, North Riverside and Berwyn — namely, high-volume ticketing of right-turn violations.
From a traffic safety perspective, red-light cameras were designed to prevent drivers from running red lights while traveling straight through the intersection, and to prevent drivers making dangerous left-hand turns in front of oncoming traffic, according to Lord.
“They should be focused on left turns and running red lights. If they are being used to make money, it’s not right because people won’t believe in them” as safety devices, Lord said.
Asked about the dangers of right-hand turns, including slow-rolling right-hand turns, Lord said the maneuver is not recognized as a significant traffic safety hazard. A right-hand turn “is not high-risk compared with other maneuvers in intersections,” he said. “The rolling stop, even if you include that, the risk is not the greatest at intersections.”
The greatest dangers at intersections, he said, are blown red lights and blind or reckless left-hand turns. These lead to head-on and T-bone collisions, which generally are much more dangerous and deadly than accidents involving right-hand turns.
Lord ended the interview with a story from College Station, Texas, where he lives. Years ago, a motorist there received a red-light camera ticket and began to challenge its existence. Those efforts eventually led to a 2009 ballot initiative that banned red-light cameras in the city.
If the purpose of red-light camera enforcement is primarily revenue-based, Lord said, “then it’s why people won’t like them and try to take them out.”