DOWNTOWN — Drivers appear to be hitting the brakes at red lights — leading to a big drop in tickets issued by red-light cameras, city officials said.
For the fifth year in a row, Chicago's red-light camera program has seen a significant decline in the number of tickets issued.
The city’s 384 red-light cameras issued 579,460 tickets last year — 32,619 fewer than in 2012, representing a 5 percent decline, according to data obtained from the city's Finance Department.
In fact, the data shows red-light camera tickets have been falling steadily since 2009, when 722,935 tickets were issued, a record at the time after a dramatic expansion of the program a year earlier. The 140,000-ticket drop represents a 20 percent decline since the peak five years ago.
Fewer tickets issued means a potential drop in fine revenue. At $100 a ticket, that translates to an estimated $3.2 million drop in fines issued between 2012 and 2013 and a $14.3 million drop in total fines issued since 2009.
Nevertheless, Chicago's red-light camera system remains the largest automated traffic camera enforcement system in the U.S., with nearly 4.7 million red-light tickets and a half-billion dollars in fines collected since its inception in 2003.
City Transportation Department officials said the drop in tickets is evidence of drivers changing their behavior, not running red lights as much and overall improving traffic safety citywide.
"The downward trend in the number of red-light camera tickets issued may indicate that more drivers are obeying the law and stopping at traffic signals," said CDOT spokesman Pete Scales. "These numbers show the enforcement program is having a positive impact and that by decreasing the amount of red-light running in Chicago, we are making Chicago a safer city."
Roy Lucke, director of transportation safety programs at Northwestern's Center for Public Safety, agreed the trend is positive.
"If fewer people are running red lights, that's good," said Lucke.
But while Lucke said it's probable more drivers are putting on the brakes at red lights, there could be other factors affecting the drop in tickets, in particular the volume of Chicago traffic. He said total miles driven has been down nationally in recent years. Less traffic going through intersections statistically translates into less red-light violations, he said.
"The simple explanation is that fewer people are violating, and that's a good thing," said Lucke. "But you also have to look at the rate of vehicles entering the intersections to make the claim that there are fewer violations."
Based on studies his organization has worked on in other cities, Lucke said red-light cameras seem to reduce the severity of crashes at intersections where they are used but don't necessarily reduce the total number of crashes.
That's because while intersections with cameras can see more rear-end crashes, there are fewer right-angle or so-called T-bone crashes. Those crashes — which occur when a car is hit by, or hits, a car crossing through the intersection on a perpendicular path — are considered more dangerous by safety experts.
That's a good swap, he said: "We'll trade a reduction in right-angle crashes for an increase in low-speed rear end crashes involving vehicles try to stop any day of the week."
Indeed, CDOT said those type of crashes have decreased, leading them to remove 34 cameras at 17 intersections from service at the end of January. Each of those intersections did not record any right-angle crashes in the last 12 months, and total crashes were below a minimum threshold to warrant keeping the cameras in place, city officials said.
But Scott Davis, who heads Cook County Campaign for Liberty, a group which opposes the use of automated cameras, was skeptical that people were changing their behavior — he said drivers are simply finding alternative routes around the cameras. However, if drivers indeed are slowing down, he said all the cameras should go.
"People are avoiding making a right turn on red and avoiding those intersections," said Davis.
But "If they're working, and its changing our behavior, maybe the city should declare victory and get rid of all the red-light cameras."
Greg Kolack, who drives all over Chicago in his job as a photographer, said he started avoiding intersections with cameras after receiving a ticket.
"I am simply avoiding the red lights" where cameras are located, said Kolack, 57, of Elmhurst. "I have figured out how to use alleys and parking lots to get around them. So yes, the cameras altered the way I drive."
Other drivers said the addition of pedestrian countdown timers at many intersections has made it easier to determine when lights are turning yellow, allowing them to slow down accordingly.
"They are helpful to make the decision whether to give the car a bit more
gas to get through the intersection or to stop before it," said North Center resident Michael Vogl. "If the city were truly interested in improving safety, they would install timers on all the lights. While I realize that would never happen, it would definitely improve safety."
City officials said they hope the number of tickets issued continues to decline.
"We hope and expect this positive trend to continue, especially as automated speed enforcement will further encourage a change in behavior among drivers in Chicago," Scales said.
While red-light camera tickets are slowing down, Chicago's new speed-camera program continues to grow as more of these cameras become active or begin sending tickets as opposed to warnings.
But even though the program is ramping up, it's falling short of city predictions: The program has generated only $3.7 million in fines and collected only $1.5 million, data from the first seven months of the program shows. That's far off the pace needed to collect the $70 million the city expected to this year.