The Chicago Tribune published a dataset of over 4 million tickets issued to motorists for entering an intersection after the light had turned red. They analyzed the dataset and found unexplained spikes, where the number of tickets, being issued by the handfuls each day, suddenly tripled. (Download the dataset.)
I looked at the tickets issued by two of the 340 cameras. I didn’t find any spikes at Belmont/Sheridan (“400 W BELMONT”) but found a noticeable spike in May and June 2011 at the 119th Street and Halsted Street intersection (“11900 S HALSTED”).
I looked at three violations on one of the days that had an atypical number of tickets issued, May 12, 2011. Each motorist was ticketed, it appears, for turning right on red. It’s not possible, though, without watching the video, to see if the motorist rolled through the turn or indeed stopped before turning right.
The Tribune called tickets issued during these “spikes” “undeserved” but that’s hard to say without see the violations on video. The photos don’t provide enough evidence. The Tribune also reported that appeals during these spike periods were more likely to be overturned than in the period outside the spikes. The reporters discussed the possibility of malfunctions and malicious behavior, calling that an “intervention”.
The Chicago Department of Transportation, which oversees the program formerly operated by Redflex and now operated by Xerox, couldn’t refute either allegation, possibly with “service records, maintenance reports, email traffic, memos or anything else”. David Kidwell and Alex Richards report:
City transportation officials said neither the city nor Redflex made any changes to how violations were enforced. They acknowledged oversight failures and said the explosions of tickets should have been detected and resolved as they occurred. But they said that doesn’t mean the drivers weren’t breaking the law, and they defended the red light camera program overall as a safety success story. The program has generated nearly $500 million in revenue since it began in 2003.
The city was unaware of the spikes until given the evidence by the Tribune in January, said David Zavattero, a deputy director for the Chicago Department of Transportation. In the six months since, city officials have not provided any explanations.
“Trust me when I tell you that we want to know what caused these spikes you have identified as much as you do,” Zavattero said. “So far we can find no smoking gun.”
He acknowledged that faulty camera equipment likely played a role.
“I would say that is likely in some of these cases,” Zavattero said. “I cannot tell you that isn’t possible. It is possible. The old equipment was much more prone to break down than the equipment we are currently installing.”
You can download the data but you will likely produce the same results as the Tribune, but maybe a different conclusion. Their analysis has led people at all levels of the civic sphere to call for an investigation, including citizens, some of whom have filed a lawsuit, Alderman Waguespack and 19 other aldermen, and CDOT commissioner – who operates the red light camera program – Rebekah Scheinfeld.
I think they sufficiently identified a suspicious pattern. By the end of the long story, though, the Tribune didn’t prove its hypothesis that the tickets were “undeserved” or “unfair”.
In violation number 7003374335 you can see the driver of a Hyundai Santa Fe turning right at a red light. The Google Street View for this intersection shows that there is no RTOR restriction, meaning the driver is legally allowed to make a right turn here with a red light after coming to a complete stop and yielding to people in the crosswalk. But we can’t see if they stopped first. The next two violations that day at the same intersection I looked showed the same situation. (Find the violation by going to PhotoNotice and inputting 7003374335, NWD648, and CHI.)
I look forward to the investigation. The Tribune made a great start by analyzing the data and spurring the call for an investigation and it seems there’s not enough information in this dataset to explain why there are more tickets being issued.
One dataset that could help provide context – because these spikes, at least the ones that are sustained, don’t seem random – is knowing the number of vehicles passing through that intersection. The speed camera data has this information and allows one to show how different weekend traffic is from weekday traffic.
Note: The Tribune identified 380 cameras but running a DISTINCT() query on the “camera name” field results in 340 values. Some cameras may have identical names because they’re at the same intersection, but you can’t discern that distinction from the dataset.