Playing Red Light, Green Light With Citizens

220px-Modern_British_LED_Traffic_LightBelow is today’s column in USA Today. The column was actually written after I went to Chicago for Christmas and experienced firsthand the speed traps created by the city to trap drivers. My home town is a case study of the twisted logic that goes into fleecing citizens. Chicagoans are paying the highest cost for parking in the nation after outgoing mayor Richard Daley Jr. signed away a 99-year-lease to all city meters (and later accepted a job with the firm that negotiated the deal).

Illinois also has the second highest property tax rates in the country; the highest cell phone taxes in the country; and the highest restaurant taxes of any major city. Even if you try to flee the city taxes, you are hit with the nation’s highest airport parking fees in the country.
To put it simply, citizens are tapped out. Instead of raising taxes further, the city decided to find a way to generate revenue and actually blame the citizens. It installed a system of cameras that would make Kim Jong-Un blush combined with the shortest yellow lights in the nation.

Now Emanuel has backed down after years of his Administration dismissing complaints from citizens. His close reelection rather than decency appears the motivation. In the past, his government has defended the patchwork system of lights. Chicago officials insisted that other cities are also using the three-second light, including Boston and New York City. However, in New York, no red light camera tickets are issued until 0.3 seconds into the red light and Boston does not have red light cameras at all (and use the three-second yellows only downtown). However, Chicago is not alone in this perverse revenue grab.

The column is below:

It appears that politicians can see a yellow light when they need to. Facing a close runoff election and a ticked off electorate, Mayor Rahm Emanuel finally relented recently and promised to remove 50 red light cameras that made Chicago the country’s largest speed trap. While citizens have complained for years, Emanuel only saw the light when polls showed he could lose re-election to a relative unknown. However, other (less endangered) politicians are still seeing rigged traffic lights as an easy revenue source.

Rahm_Emanuel,_official_photo_portrait_colorEmanuel first gave Chicago the highest number of traffic cameras of any city, and then in February 2014 he allowed for tickets to be issued under yellow lights that lasted 2.9 seconds. After the practice was exposed by the Chicago Tribune, the mayor returned in September to the three-second minimum, which is set by federal law. But many drivers still complain it is not enough time at 30 miles per hour to get through intersections.

I experienced that fact firsthand when I returned to my hometown for Christmas and faced the patchwork of slow zones all over the city. At three seconds, the light turns red unless you speed to get across an intersection. Thus, if you try to cross the intersection, you can get nailed for both running the light and speeding.

Braking on yellow

I found myself hitting the brakes as soon as a yellow light appeared. I am not alone.

The Chicago Tribune found that these slow zones and yellow lights have resulted in 22% more rear-end crashes that caused injuries. (The study also found that the cameras reduced injury-causing “T-bone” crashes, or right-angle hits, by 15%.)

Nevertheless, cities strapped for cash are turning to speed traps that were once ridiculed as a tactic of rural, small towns. About 500 towns and cities have installed red-light cameras, often through lucrative deals with private contractors. It is an irresistible temptation for many cities and their contractors (who receive a generous cut from fines) to rig the system to generate more revenue by posting speed reductions or shortening yellow lights, or both.

In 2013, Florida quietly reduced the timing of its yellow lights and generated more than $100 million in extra revenue. Likewise, a study of New Jersey intersections found that the contractor had shortened virtually every yellow light below the minimum timing to generate tickets.

The increased accidents in Chicago are consistent with academic studies. One study found that increasing yellow times by just half a second resulted in a decrease in accidents of up to 25%.

Most cities have yellow lights timed at 3.5 seconds. Maryland actually passed a law requiring at least 3.5 seconds; in Baltimore it is 3.6 seconds. Los Angeles and San Diego set their lights at 3.7 seconds and 3.9 seconds respectively. Philadelphia set its lights at four seconds to reduce the type of collisions now common in Chicago.

Devastating to families

This new revenue for cities can be devastating for families. A recent study showed that one in three Chicagoans has less than $250 in the bank every pay day. Yet Emanuel is handing out $35 tickets for six to 10 miles over the limit. If you go 11 mph over the limit, you are hit with a $100 ticket.

In Beverly Hills, one infamous speed trap hits drivers traveling downhill on Wilshire Boulevard with a short yellow light. The city just films car after car getting nailed and sends off a demand for payment. That yellow light, however, is still longer than Chicago’s at 3.3 seconds vs. three seconds.

Ironically, standard contracts in some states give contractors a percentage of the fines — creating “perverse incentives.”

Yet, these traps only succeed as windfalls for so long. In Chicago, while rear-end collisions are up, drivers are now avoiding intersections with red light cameras, and revenue from fines has dropped $50 million. New York City faced a similar shortfall.

That is, until these cities can come up with another way to trap their own citizens.

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.

March 16, 2015

62 thoughts on “Playing Red Light, Green Light With Citizens”

  1. usn420 – another revenue generating scheme that is just lovely are the toll roads in Liberal SoCal. They used taxpayer money to build roads to ease the traffic congestion, but they made them toll roads so those taxpayers have to pay to use what they paid to build. So the free roads are jammed with traffic, while the toll roads are mostly clear, at least the few times I’ve taken them. So, no real net improvement in traffic, or the smog produced from cars taking longer to get to their destination. Then, they computerized the system, and replaced manned booths with cameras that read transponders mounted to the car. If a car goes through without a transponder, their license plate is scanned. They have to go on the computer within something like 8 days and look up their license plate, figure out how to pay the toll, or they get hit with a huge fine. This is a cash cow, which takes advantage of the elderly, the poor, and those unfamiliar with the area.

    This particular revenue scam is helping fund Gov Brown’s Bullet Vacation Train to San Francisco, AKA the Train to Nowhere that is currently tied up in court over eminent domain fights as they try to snatch land from farmers in the Central Valley. Because, don’t you know, a vacation train for the idle class is more important than feeding the nation.

    And, as per usual, the Vacation Trail will do nothing to ease the gridlock or potholed roads that drive people to move out of state.

    1. I think it’s a little silly to make this a liberal issue. Tolls and user fees exist in every state and almost every major city. Politicians, on both sides of the aisle, want the cash. Keep focused.

  2. Wadewilliams…

    I guess you’re right. I am lamenting the fact that there are more Democrats than Republicans in Illinois. It’s not really the number of them that bothers me. Some of my neighbors are Democrats and we get along just fine. It’s the actions Democrat politicians consistently take that cost me more and more money every year. Property tax, gas tax, phone tax, income tax, high sales tax… the list is endless. Then when they’ve taxed to the maximum extent they think they can get away with, they put cameras on stoplights and shorten the period on caution lights to generate more revenue.

    Trust me on this one though… I have been fairly successful in the private sector after my Navy career and will soon join the tens of thousands of other former Illinois residents and take my tax dollars with me to another state!

    I did a comparison several months ago. My company has a presence in Texas. If I were to transfer to Texas in my current job and purchase a house of like value there, my take home income would increase by $1,400 per month just from the difference in income and property taxes alone. I’ll be the first to admit that I am indeed an idiot for choosing to live in this state.

    According to the Chicago Tribune, Illinois lost 95K people via state-to-state out migration in 2014 alone. United Van lines reports that Illinois ranks #1 in out-bound moves. These are more affluent citizens that can afford professional moving services… and who have been paying higher taxes.

    Yet the constituency of this fine state continue to blindly elect representatives that have systematically spent Illinois into near bankruptcy. It’s to the point now where there are few viable means to recover.

  3. In my town our local political idiots, at the time, decided to installed elaborate (decks and lots) paid parking in the West End, when two malls very near-by had toll free parking…their argument was that it would West End business potential. Noteworthy is that as of next month, that paid parking delusion is gone….guess the boarded up vacant store fronts finally gave the pols a clue. After, of course, expending millions upon millions to install paid parking and hire contractors to run them.

    I am off the opinion that our local city council should have five minute period where is okay to just walk up and slap snot out of the proponents of such stupidity. I am only half kidding.

    On a positive note, we already have what Darren proposed about red lights locked on for both directions for a few seconds. Very hard to argue the “but it was a yellow” excuse under that circumstance.

  4. Chicago News Cooperative
    Abu Dhabi Shares Profits From Parking Meters
    Published: December 5, 2009

    “Mr. Daley has heatedly disputed the notion that the new company is poised to make big profits that the city should have earned by keeping the meters in public hands. While debate has raged over the deal’s true worth, the parking company has sought to keep its shareholders out of the spotlight.”

    “…49.9 percent belongs to a company almost evenly divided between Allianz and Tannadice Investments LLC.

    Tannadice is a “wholly owned subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, which is a public institution wholly owned by the Government of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi,” according to city records. Another fund of the Abu Dhabi government owns an additional 3 percent stake through one of the Morgan partnerships.

    The highly publicity-shy Abu Dhabi Investment Authority is among the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, formed to invest the surplus revenues of that Persian Gulf emirate’s government. The chairman of Abu Dhabi Investment Authority’s board of directors is Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the president of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Abu Dhabi, the U.A.E. capital, according to the fund’s Web site.

    Besides the interests of investors from the United States, Australia, and Europe, Morgan Stanley reported a stake in the parking meter company held by an entity called Cavendish Limited. The documents listed Cavendish at an address at the high-rise Silver Tower, near the waterfront of Abu Dhabi.

    Cavendish is a subsidiary of a government fund called the Abu Dhabi Investment Council, according to corporate records filed with the Hong Kong government by a Chinese company that received a $50 million investment from Cavendish last year.”

  5. “My client didn’t commit sodomy, your honor, at best he’s only guilty for ‘following too close'”.

  6. Pretty good thread. Stop light cameras cause many rear end collisions as people who should really just continue through SLAM on their brakes to avoid a ticket. So, maybe there’s some ambulance chaser collusion in wanting these cameras. Ambulance chasers love rear end collisions.

  7. KAREN

    Tax and spend(D) or borrow and spend(R): same results. We have a war economy, and the 1% know the high cost of invading countries that have natural resources and are populated by Brown people.

    As G. Vidal said: “we have only one political party: The Property Party. And it has two wings.”

  8. slamming on the brakes in a rig is so dangerous, although those who don’t haul have no idea.

    Karen. No kidding. We don’t always take the crew cab dually to town, but when we are hauling a heavy load, going to the recycler (brass parts, pump motors, copper, aluminum etc from the business) or pulling a trailer with the backhoe in it, it is really dangerous. Mostly from people who have no idea how hard it is to stop a big rig like that who pull in front and cut us off. Slamming on their brakes.

    We make a joke that driving the dually is like steering the Queen Mary. You have to plan where and how you are going to get to your destination. Parking….yikes sometimes it is impossible just to get around in a crowded town.

  9. Aridog:

    “Michigan “Republicans” always reveal themselves as RINOS eventually”. Tax and spend RINOS are just as bad as Tax and Spend Liberals, because the end result is the same.

    And it seems that all politicians are in someone’s pocket and someone’s debt. It’s what I despair of in “politics as usual.” Different entities own different political parties, but the major ones are all owned by someone. It’s the average citizen who gets crushed in the middle of special interest and politician, as well as tax-and-spend.

  10. Libby:

    “But if these cameras save just one life, aren’t they worth it?”

    The duration of the yellow lights have been shortened by 25% in order to generate tickets via red light cameras.

    Shortening a yellow light does not save lives; it creates accidents. If knowledge about a red light camera saves one life because it prevents someone from running the light, but it costs 5 lives (hypothetically) because the short light causes fatal T-bone crashes, then we have a net negative.

  11. This story reminds me of an experience my father had when he was a new teenage driver. He was ticketed for running a stop sign, which he never saw because it was completely hidden by a tree. His father accompanied him to court, and scolded the judge for creating a revenue-generating scheme that could have gotten his son killed. The judge actually listened.

    The tree was trimmed shortly thereafter.

    But accountability seems in shorter demand today.

  12. Chuck – that is an awesome story about the IT man on a mission.

    DBQ – slamming on the brakes in a rig is so dangerous, although those who don’t haul have no idea. Several years ago we had a trailer accident hauling our draft horses when my husband braked as a dog stepped in front of the truck. There was no where to go, and the dog was killed. Our 2600 lb horse slipped and went down in the trailer, and was strangling in the lead rope, which unbelievably didn’t break. We were on the side of the road, desperately trying to save the horse and get him out before he broke his legs, which were trapped in twisted metal. Our other draft horse was shaking, holding a deep squat to keep from crushing his friend underneath him. The horse trusted my husband, who got him out with only bruises and scrapes.

    To hear people blithely dismiss the braking distance and time for rigs illustrates why people are so prone to cutting in front of trailers.

  13. [dictation error!]

    Libby, it’s not about safety.
    Multiple studies have been done to prove the red light cameras not only do not increase automobile safety, but may worsen it.

    But legislators do not care about that fact.
    Instead, they still talk about how it improves safety, even though they know they are lying.

    It is a stealth tax, and revenue generation is its only purpose.

  14. Libby, it’s not about safety.
    Multiple studies have been done to prove the red light cameras not only did not increase automobile safety, but may worsen it.

    And legislators do not care about that fact. Instead, they still talk about how a decreased safety, even though they know their line.

    It is a stealth tax, and revenue generation is its only purpose.

  15. Libby:

    “I don’t have a car so I don’t have a problem with this. If you’re not breaking the law you have nothing to worry about, only the unsafe drivers are penalized.”

    Let’s say a law abiding citizen used to a 3.9 second yellow light passes through one of these cities. He’s caught by surprise by a 3 second light, in the middle of the intersection, when the light turns red, and he’s T-boned in an accident.

    That sounds like something to worry about.

  16. Chicago is dying.
    During the 1980–2010 period, Chicago lost a total of over 300,000 residents.
    However, population rose slightly (0.86%, gaining 23,000) by 2013.

    This is compared to Texas which had an annual population increase of about 1.6 percent between 2010-2013, compared with about 2% growth per year between 2000 and 2010.

    And it’s broke.
    Moody’s cut the city’s credit rating within two steps of junk (Baa2) because of mounting pension liabilities. Chicago is obligated to pay $600 million into four pension funds in next year’s budget.
    In contrast, S&P affirmed it at A+, four levels above Moody’s, andFitch Ratings affirmed Chicago at two steps higher than Moody’s.


    “has $20 billion in unfunded pension obligations that it can’t address without the approval of the state legislature. Lawmakers in June restructured two city pension plans with about $9.4 billion in underfunded liabilities for about 60,000 municipal workers and retirees by making them pay more and reducing benefits. The changes didn’t apply to the police and fire systems.”

    The red light cameras are merely a rather random tax, disguised as a safety issue.
    It’s not enough money.
    But it’s a Democrat town, so taxes are never enough.

  17. I made no mention of short yellow times, I only referred to cameras.

    @ Libby

    Did you read the post by JT? It is about the shortened yellow light times to enable the city (and others) to trap drivers into being ticketed for running a red light.

    It isn’t about safety. It is about $$$$$$$$

    1. As I mentioned before, just lengthen the yellow to 5 seconds to allow a proper safe stopping margin for all vehicles, including large industrial types. This would solve the entire problem. But it won’t be done because it would reduce revenue.

Comments are closed.