$26.5 million in red-light camera tickets issued along Harlem Avenue since 2014

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By Bob Uphues and Brett McNeil

Senior Editor and Contributing Reporter

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 Wednesday Journal 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 Wednesday Journal 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 Wednesday Journal, 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 Wednesday Journal'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 and North Riverside Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. did not respond to written questions from the Landmark prior to the newspaper's print deadline. Berwyn'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 Wednesday Journal 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."

Reader Comments

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David W Ristau from Lahaina  

Posted: January 13th, 2017 8:08 PM

I learned a long time ago to stay stopped at any intersection with a red-light camera. No amount of horn-honking behind me is worth paying $ 100 for an unearned ticket.

Sean OMalley  

Posted: January 13th, 2017 3:08 PM

My 17 year old received three in a week coming back from his summer job,,,,not knowing that that you have stop and rock before turning right. Lesson learned. This is a revenue maker and NOTHING ELSE!

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: January 11th, 2017 7:59 PM

Interesting article 11 Jan Chicago Tribune suburbs section of the on line newspaper. The Oak Brook Board has called out the "corrupt" relationship between the red light camera companies and local officials. Makes you want to move to Dupage County.

Jane Affleck-Morocco from River Forest   

Posted: January 11th, 2017 6:42 PM

Excellent article! I would love to see a Part 2 and the names of all the local politicians that have been involved in this on so many levels since the early 2000's.

Amanda Turnbull from Oak Park  

Posted: January 11th, 2017 4:00 PM

Yeah, the Harlem/Cermak intersection is a total trap. I've gotten multiple tickets there, always making a right turn. Once I didn't stop for the apparently mandatory "5 seconds," another time I was stopped behind another car waiting to turn, they went, I checked traffic, then I went. But apparently since I didn't pull up to the line and then stop AGAIN, I was in violation. And most of my violations have been making that "illegal" right turn when the left-turn arrows were on for the road I was turning on to, which would means there couldn't have been any cars coming into my lane. If an officer wouldn't have pulled me over for it I don't think a guy at a desk looking at video all day should be able to issue me a $100 ticket. It's excessive.

Jamie Schehl Diatta from Oak Park  

Posted: January 11th, 2017 2:47 PM

After receiving two ridiculous tickets for right turns on Harlem, I now go out of my way to avoid shopping and traveling along this route. I bet I am not the only one, either. I wonder if the Harlem corridor business owners are aware that these red light cameras are driving customers away...

Benjamin Hill from Oak Park  

Posted: January 11th, 2017 2:10 PM

I wonder if there is a way to determine which zip codes are generating the ticket revenue. I suspect that if greater than 50% of the tickets are being paid by citizens of those towns they'll want to get rid of them. But, if it's out-of-town'ers...

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: January 11th, 2017 2:03 PM

Bill Kopper poses a great question. Since Village officials flatly refuse to open the TIF books to public inspection and submit the records to a forensic accountant; it may be up to our local press to get residents and taxpayers some answers. No current board member will call for TIF reforms and at least one candidate, Dan Maroney seems likely to want to maintain the status quo. How the others seeking election will act has yet to be fully explained to voters.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: January 11th, 2017 1:07 PM

Sure would like to see a list or an accounting of all the vehicles that committed a violation and were not sent a citation, ie. fire and police,public bus and a list of all vehicles that were forgiven,like a funeral and reported stolen vehicles. FOIA perhaps. What is the procedure if an out of state license plate is photographed? Is a notice sent to the out of state auto owner? What happens to the out of state owner if they do not comply and their state does not comply?

Dennis Ryan from Oak Park  

Posted: January 11th, 2017 11:05 AM

Since getting ticketed for an alleged right-turn violation at Harlem and North, I now tend to entirely avoid that intersection when I can, especially if I need to make a right turn. So now I happily detour through the scenic residential streets of northeast River Forest ?" the last thing the village officials there are not trying to promote, I'm certain. That camera at Harlem and North is simply an entrapment device ?" a game of chance. And River Forest's "appeal" process is nothing more than despotic chicanery.

Kline Maureen  

Posted: January 11th, 2017 10:17 AM

Yes - this is a very interesting, in-depth, critical piece of reporting, but one that is focused primarily on Berwyn and River Forest. It would be very refreshing to see similar journalistic rigor and criticism applied to reporting of Oak Park issues - such as the spending of funds in the TIF districts mentioned by Bill Kopper.

Jeff Schroeder from Oak Park  

Posted: January 11th, 2017 10:11 AM

First, I am absolutely shocked that I haven't gotten once of these tickets yet. All the more reason to take East Avenue or Oak Park Avenue (pushing more traffic onto streets where there are more pedestrians). Just another example of a hidden local tax, for those of you who don't think we pay enough of those.

Bill Kopper from Oak Park  

Posted: January 11th, 2017 10:10 AM

Excellent piece WJ! How about a series on TIF districts starting with history and ending with village officials stonewalling you when you try to see the public record!

James Walker  

Posted: January 11th, 2017 9:41 AM

Facts: 1) The reporters DID their homework to expose the abusive nature of right on red camera tickets. 2) Research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in a Report to Congress showed that only six one-hundredths of one percent (0.06% pr 0.0006) of all crashes with injuries or fatalities involve a right on red turn, including both those with or without a full stop. http://www.nhtsa.gov/About+NHTSA/Traffic Techs/current/The Safety Impact of Right Turn on Red: Report to Congress 3) Both the for-profit vendors and their for-profit city business partners know that almost every right on red camera ticket goes to a safe driver who endangered absolutely no one. 4) Red light cameras are government-run money-grab rackets that should be illegal in every state, as they are in some already. 5) Paying camera companies on a percentage or per-ticket basis virtually guarantees corruption because the companies have every incentive to issue as many tickets as possible to increase profits. These contract provisions are illegal in some places, and should be illegal everywhere. 6) Residents of these communities should demand that the cameras be totally removed. James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

Terry Stanton  

Posted: January 11th, 2017 8:24 AM

After paying for one after a ridiculous violation charge for a turn on a Sunday morning at North and Harlem, I've not spent a dime in River Forest since. This is elected officials fleecing people and lying about "safety." Nailing people for the right turn at southbound Harlem onto Cermak--where there is a completely dedicated turn lane has zero to do with safety. This all just fuels cynicism about government.

Bridgett Baron  

Posted: January 11th, 2017 4:19 AM

Great *investigative* reporting. Thank you for doing the press' job: keeping government accountable. The issue is not that these cameras make a boatload of money. The issue is that the public was lied to: "But the public face of the red-light camera pitch was all about safety." And when you lie to the very people you were elected to serve, trust is broken. And that is far more costly than the millions of dollars being raked in via these cameras. Thanks again, Bob and Brett.

Jan Parr  

Posted: January 10th, 2017 9:47 PM

What a terrific piece of reporting. Thank you

Douglas Colber from Oak Park  

Posted: January 10th, 2017 9:04 PM

At the ballot box, I'm curious about how voters from Berwyn, Forest Park, North Riverside, and River Forest will vote when given the chance to oust city officials who disproportionately rely on drivers to generate revenue in the name of traffic safety. Thank you, gentlemen, for your enlightening reporting.

Jon Yates  

Posted: January 10th, 2017 7:54 PM

Excellent watchdog reporting. More of this, please. Thank you Wednesday Journal!

Karen Barg Baldwin  

Posted: January 10th, 2017 5:45 PM

My husband was also caught at Harlem and Cermak. We do not run red lights. He stopped, but apparently not long enough. No danger to any walkers. Photos didn't seem to prove anything. Petitioned the ticket and of course, it was denied. Beginning to think this is all a big scam!

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: January 10th, 2017 5:07 PM

Actually, that's "excellent job, gentlemen." Outstanding. The next time some fool whines about the WJ being some sort of Pravda-like house organ for government, I hope the more thoughtful readers consider award-worthy stories like this one. I can tell you for a fact that they don't come about on their own. There's a lot of hard work by talented, dedicated people. And this area is lucky to have them. . . kudos, guys.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: January 10th, 2017 4:47 PM

The owner of the vehicle is punished for the actions of the driver. That is unfair.

Michael Nevins  

Posted: January 10th, 2017 4:38 PM

This article explains EVERYTHING one needs to know about most village officials. It's all about "show me the money!" to keep their gravy train of plans and schemes going. We are simply sheep to be shorn. Y'know, "for the children."

Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: January 10th, 2017 4:37 PM

thank you for this - nice job gentlemen

Jon Hale  

Posted: January 10th, 2017 4:25 PM

Agree with Jim. Excellent job exposing this rip-off of taxpayers in the name of public safety. I don't mind cameras for straight-up running of red lights or turning left too late. But right-on-red camera tickets should be banned outright. Of course, then there would be no revenue to speak of.

Lanny Lutz  

Posted: January 10th, 2017 4:15 PM

Excellent reporting, indeed, albeit a bit lengthy! Over the years, paid out almost 10 tickets at the two corners, SE & NW, of Harlem and Cermak. Never sped through stop sign; always, as indicated in article, slowly edged through for better visibility. Duly sent in protest for each citation. Every protest, of course, declined.

Hank Marquardt  

Posted: January 10th, 2017 4:02 PM

Yeah, they've got $200 of my dollars ... one right turn at Harlem/Lake ... and yes, absolutely no one was in danger except my wallet ... The other I probably deserved, turning left on Harlem northbound off of North Ave westbound ... that turn on arrow only is so darn long of a wait that I pushed the yellow a little too far.

Bob Larson  

Posted: January 10th, 2017 3:55 PM

The right on red cameras are a scam. At most intersections, one has to go past the white line to see if the traffic on the left is clear and you can proceed safely. Most people slowly creep past the white line to see if it is safe to proceed. And bingo! You have earned a $100 ticket! My solution? I just don't turn right on red at these intersections and incur the wrath of the motorists behind me!

Jim Kelly  

Posted: January 10th, 2017 3:54 PM

This is great reporting. Thank you! I got zapped twice at the SE corner of Harlem and Cermak, making a right turn -- $200 into the corrupt Berwyn Municipal coffers. The white painted lines for the crosswalk and the white line for vehicle stop-before-proceeding were so faded as to be indistinguishable. I believe that was a deliberate ploy.

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