CITY HALL — A man who's made a career sideline out of fighting tickets issued by red-light cameras is now looking to expand the business through Chicago's new speed cameras.
Barnet Fagel, also known as the "red light doctor," said Monday that he is looking forward to Chicago's speed cameras "with bated breath."
Fagel got into his sideline about five years ago, when his son was ticketed in Fagel's car for a red-light violation at Broadway and Hollywood Avenue, a prime North Side entrance to Lake Shore Drive. Fagel tried unsuccessfully to fight the ticket with video from a camcorder. Since then, he said, he's taken those efforts "light years ahead of where we were before," and now into fighting speed camera tickets.
"I'm not a wiseguy. But I know the subject pretty well," Fagel said.
The National Motorists Association gave him its first Sentinel Award earlier this year for a long-term battle over spreadsheets the Illinois Department of Transportation was giving out in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. He also just conducted a study in New Jersey in which he found that, of 19 tested red-light cameras, all but one had yellow lights shorter than the legal minimum.
The Buffalo Grove resident said he takes about eight to 10 cases a month, primarily through his website.
"I don't charge a lot of money for it," Fagel said. "It's more a charity thing or a hobby."
In any case, though, he's developed an undeniable expertise in the field and claims an 81 percent reversal rate "because I pick the cases that I feel that I have the best chance of winning."
He said he won't contest red-light-camera tickets in suburbs like Palatine and Northfield, where the rulings are pretty much slam dunks in favor of the local government.
"Believe it or not, Chicago's the fairest," he said.
He's fought the tickets on various grounds, using video going frame by frame, but also on the argument that some intersections have yellow lights shorter than the three-second minimum allowed by law.
Fagel, in fact, first made news three years ago by putting together a video of 10 top Chicago red-light intersections that had yellow lights shorter than three seconds. He said those lights have not been fixed.
"They will never fix it," Fagel said. "That's like slaughtering the goose that lays the golden eggs. Why would they do that?"
Fagel also pointed to Pratt Boulevard and Western Avenue, where southbound traffic has a speed limit of 35 mph heading toward Warren Park. Fagel said the city's own website says that should dictate a four-second yellow light, confirmed by Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Peter Scales. Yet the tickets indicate the yellow light is still three seconds.
"They're admitting they didn't give you enough yellow time," Fagel said. "I've had a lot of judges throw that out."
Now he's looking to start in on the city's new speed cameras, which have yet to hit the suburbs, although he said it's only a matter of time.
"We're going to be doing some evaluation on those in the next week or so," Fagel said. "We're going to be shooting video of them shooting video. We want to examine the pictures and other photographic and video details of what they're doing."
Of primary interest is whether the video shot of a car ticketed for speeding will have a frame wide enough to see if a car in a lane next to the ticketed car is the one actually speeding.
"Radar doesn't know the difference," Fagel said. "If they're going to do speed cameras properly, they should put calibration stripes on the street."
That way, visual evidence would confirm the radar reading.
"They'll never do it," he added, because it would also give people like him a way of arguing against the ticket.
"I don't claim to be a lawyer," Fagel said. "But I go in as an attorney in fact, not an attorney of record. I don't argue the law. I argue the evidence."
And he said the reason for his crusade is that the evidence shows both red-light cameras and speed cameras are "just a cash machine" for local governments.
Fagel doesn't buy government arguments that the cameras promote safety.
Red-light cameras produced $72 million in revenue last year for the city, and estimates are that speed cameras could multiply that once the 300 allowed by law are up and running, starting with 50 this year.
According to Fagel, state Sen. Dan Duffy (R-Barrington) proposed that Illinois adopt a Georgia law mandating four-second yellows at all intersections with red-light cameras. Called the One Second for Safety Bill, it reportedly produced an 80 percent to 85 percent drop in tickets in Georgia as well as a 50 percent reduction in accidents at the intersections.
"Of course, the City of Chicago was against it," Fagel said, but so was the Illinois Department of Transportation.
Fagel said if safety near schools are a concern — a primary argument for speed cameras — students should be taught specifically about pedestrian safety. He sent a FOIA request to Chicago Public Schools asking for all educational materials on the subject used in the classroom. The response he eventually received: "Nothing."
Fagel said his efforts are not about helping motorists break the law, adding, "I don't even like to use the phrase 'gotten off,' because my tagline is, 'We don't fix tickets, we cure them.'"
Part of that, he said, is simply making municipalities obey the letter of the law on red-light and now speed cameras.