Tagred light camera

Eight dead cyclists, but red light cameras are the worst

Streetsblog Chicago reader David Altenburg left a salient comment this morning in response to the final tally of cyclists killed in Chicago last year after being hit by cars.

David's comment about cyclist fatalities and red light cameras

David’s comment about cyclist fatalities and red light cameras.

He wrote, “Is there any evidence that those cyclists who were killed were also issued improper tickets from red light cameras? Because if there is, then maybe we can get the current crop of ‘progressive’ mayoral candidates to give a shit about them.”

In 2013, three bicyclists died in car crashes, a fluke, because if you look at RedEye’s chart the annual average of bicyclist fatalities is 6 people. (There was a fourth cyclist death in 2013, but that was a train crash with the Brown Line.)

Playing around with Chicago data: who’s running red lights?

Range Rover with Illinois license plate "0"

A Range Rover with Illinois license plate “0” is seen moving 40 MPH in a 30 MPH zone through a red light at Ashland and Cortland.

I’m just seeing who’s driving around Chicago one night, using the Tribune-published dataset of over 4.1 million tickets issued from red light cameras.

The City of Chicago has installed at least 340 red light cameras since the mid-2000s to reduce the number of people running red lights and crashing. They’re supposed to be installed at intersections where there’s a higher-than-average rate of right angle (“T-bone”) crashes, which are more injurious than other typical intersection crash types.

Assessing safety wasn’t the Tribune’s story angle, though. It was about showing spikes in the number of tickets issued, which I verified to some extent. The article called the tickets issued during these spikes “undeserved” and “unfair”. The data doesn’t have enough information to say whether or not that is the case; a video or extensive photo review is necessary to rule out rolling right turns while the light was red (a much less dangerous maneuver unless people are trying to cross the street).

The first query I ran assessed the number of people who get more than one ticket from a red light camera. Since I was tired my query was a little sloppy and it missed a lot of more useful order choices and didn’t select the right fields. I fell asleep and started again in the morning. This time, I got it right in just two tries – I needed to try again because I mistakenly put HAVING before the GROUP BY clause.

Here’s the first query, in its final form, to retrieve the number of tickets for each license plate in each state (I assumed there may be identical license plates among states).

select max(ticket_number), max(timestamp), license_plate, state, count(*) AS count FROM rlc_tickets group by license_plate, state HAVING count(*) > 1 order by count DESC NULLS LAST

It resulted in 851,538 rows, with each row representing a unique license plate-state combination and the number of red light violations that combination received. You can reasonably assert that cars don’t change license plates more than a couple times in a single person’s ownership, meaning you can also assert that each row represents one automobile.

851,538 vehicles, which make up 35.1% of all violators, have received 2,601,608, or 62.3%, of the 4,174,770 tickets. (There are 2,424,700 license plate-state combinations, using the query below.)

select count(ticket_number) from rlc_tickets group by license_plate, state

Here’re the top 10 vehicles that have received the most violations:

  1. SCHLARS, IL, 78
  2. 9720428, IL, 59
  3. 8919589, IL, 57
  4. A633520, IL, 52
  5. 3252TX, IL, 45
  6. A209445, IL, 44
  7. N339079, IL, 44
  8. X870991, IL, 41
  9. 239099, IL, 41
  10. 4552985, IL, 40

The next step would be to design a chart to show these vehicles’ activity over the months – did the vehicles’ drivers’ behavior change, decreasing the number of red light violations they received? Did the vehicle owner, perhaps a parent, tell their child to stop running red lights? Or has the vehicle owner appealed erroneously-issued tickets?

When I ran one of the first, mistaken, queries, I got results that put license plate “0” at the top of the list, with only nine tickets (license plates with two or more zeros were listed next).

I googled “license plate 0” and found a 2009 Tribune article which interviewed the Range Rover-driving owner of license plate “0” and the problems he encountered because of it. The City of Chicago parking meter enforcement staff were testing new equipment and used “0” as a test license plate not knowing such that license plate exists. Tom Feddor received real tickets, though.

I then looked up on PhotoNotice the license plate and ticket violation number to find, indeed, the license plate belonged to someone driving a Range Rover at Ashland Avenue and Cortland Street on July 17, 2008. An added bonus was Feddor’s speed in that Range Rover: the camera recorded the car going 40 MPH in a 30 MPH zone.

I was done browsing around for the biggest offenders so next I wondered how many tickets were issued to vehicles licensed in Arizona, where U-Haul registers all of its nationwide vehicles. Arizona plates came in 29th place for the greatest number of tickets.

select count(*) AS count, state from rlc_tickets group by state order by count DESC NULLS LAST

As you may have expected, four surrounding Midwest states, and Ohio, rounded up the top five states after Illinois – but this isn’t notable because most visitors come from there and they each only comprise less than 1.3% of the total tickets. The next state was Florida.

  • 3,986,739, IL
  • 51,104, WI
  • 40,737, MI
  • 27,539, IN
  • 8,550, OH
  • 7,684, MN
  • 7,139, FL

What’s next: I’m working on finding a correlation between the number of reported crashes, and type, at intersections with red light cameras and the number of tickets they issued. I started doing that before running the numbers behind this blog post but it got complicated and it takes a long time to geospatially compare over 500,000 crash reports with over 4.1 million red light tickets.

What else do you want to know?

I will delete all comments that don’t discuss the content of this post, including comments that call red light cameras, or this program, a “money grab”.

Red light camera ticket data insufficient to find cause for spikes

Spike in tickets issued at 119th/Halsted in May and June 2011. Nodes represent tickets grouped by week.

Spike in tickets issued at 119th/Halsted in May and June 2011. Nodes represent tickets grouped by week.

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.

The "before" image showing the Santa Fe vehicle approaching the stop bar.

The “before” image showing the Santa Fe vehicle approaching the stop bar.

Violation photo 2

After: The Santa Fe vehicle is seen in a right turn.

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.

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