Sunday, October 12, 2014


How Chicago's red light ticketing turned yellow lights into cash

Confronted with questions about a flurry of red light camera tickets stamped with yellow times below the 3-second minimum, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration said the fluctuation of hundredths of a second was normal - imperceptible to anyone behind the wheel of a car.

It turns out that fraction of a second makes a big difference to drivers and to the city's coffers.

The Emanuel administration on Friday acknowledged that it had changed the rules on what qualifies for a $100 ticket, quietly directing its new red light camera vendor to tag drivers even when the duration of a yellow light slips just below the 3-second standard set by the city.

The policy generated 77,000 more tickets and nearly $8 million in revenue for the city over the last six months.

Three days after facing Tribune questions about the short yellow lights, the administration just as quietly suspended the practice on Sept. 22. Called out weeks later by Inspector General Joseph Ferguson, Emanuel officials said they would end the practice for good but keep the money.

"My guess is that any safety benefit they can show because of those 77,000 tickets is either nonexistent or very minimal, but they sure do have $8 million more in revenue to show for it," said Joseph Schofer, a Northwestern University engineering professor and one of several traffic experts who have reviewed the Tribune's analysis of the camera program.

Emanuel's back-and-forth yellow light policy casts further doubt about the fairness of Chicago's decade-old camera system, long billed as being about public safety and allegedly built on a bribery scheme at City Hall. It is also the latest example of inconsistent enforcement in a program the inspector general says was plagued by city mismanagement, failed oversight and a focus on keeping the cameras rolling.

In July, a 10-month Tribune investigation exposed suspicious spikes in tickets at dozens of red light cameras around the city that national experts said were likely the result of faulty equipment or human tinkering.

The inspector general issued a "limited-scope" review Friday of questions raised by that report, finding that City Hall's management of the program was "fundamentally deficient" and its oversight was "insufficient to identify and resolve the types of issues identified in the Tribune report."

Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld agreed with the broad outlines of Ferguson's review, saying past management of the program was deficient. She wrote in her response to the report: "The city's ongoing reviews do not reveal any fundamental concerns about the validity of the program.

"However, a sound public safety program depends on public trust, and we must work harder to maintain the public's confidence in the program."

In the 25-page report, Ferguson suggested the city had never looked for the kind of surges in ticketing the Tribune found but instead focused on the opposite problem - intersections where ticket numbers were low or cameras weren't functioning.

City transportation "staff saw their role at that time as keeping the systems operational rather than ensuring that the equipment functioned accurately," he wrote.

Ferguson said he could only find some answers for three of the 12 most dramatic spikes highlighted in the Tribune's investigation, which involved more than 13,000 tickets, most generated by Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. He said missing maintenance records stymied his efforts to discover what happened and why.

The missing material included records that the new vendor - Xerox State & Local Solutions - erased from camera system hard drives in order to reuse them when the company took over the contract in late February, Ferguson said.

The inspector general said Transportation Department officials helped him solve the mystery of the most dramatic spike in the Tribune's report, at Halsted and 119th streets, where one camera in 2011 tagged more drivers in a 52-day period than it had in the previous year and half combined.

The problem, he wrote, was a dramatic drop in the camera system's trigger speed that caught 1,618 drivers who would not have been ticketed under the camera's normal settings.

If a car is moving faster than a preset "trigger speed" when it approaches an intersection, sensors activate the camera. According to Ferguson's report, the trigger speed during the spike from April to June 2011 mysteriously dropped from 15 mph to as low as 5 mph.

"Available maintenance records do not document when, why or how the trigger speed was reset to 15 mph, or who, if anyone, at CDOT or Redflex was aware of the issue," he wrote, adding that a lack of records means the drivers ticketed during the spike may never find out the motivation behind the change.

On the North Side, a spike at 800 W. Fullerton Ave. was caused by a damaged traffic light that wasn't visible to drivers at the intersection, Ferguson wrote. That two-day spike tagged 64 drivers at a camera that normally only tagged a few motorists a day.

Ferguson wrote that another light at the intersection was functioning and visible and CDOT said the spike "may have resulted from inattentive drivers ignoring the still-functioning traffic signal."

The inspector general blamed a 12-day spike at 6200 N. Lincoln Ave. on a faulty sensor in the right turn lane of the three-lane roadway that only worked intermittently for years.

The 2012 spike happened when the so-called loop detector mysteriously started working again, catching drivers rolling through right turns in a lane that had not been enforced for months. An average of 47 drivers a day were ticketed, but Ferguson said what looked like a spike was actually closer to what would have been normal if the equipment had been working.

He said that had the sensor been working full time, another 45,444 tickets would have been issued.

Scheinfeld agreed with Ferguson's finding that the city could have been issuing more tickets.

"These issues demonstrate that the past management of the program was insufficient," Scheinfeld wrote in her response. "Although the program has shown dramatic improvements in safety, due to those technical and management deficiencies the program was actually under-enforcing violations."

But national traffic experts say that the anomalies found by the Tribune run counter to what they would expect in a well-performing camera program aimed at improving safety by training drivers to improve their behavior over time. If the camera program is operating as it should, tickets should decline as drivers learn to adjust.

Emanuel has sought to blame any problems with the program on Redflex, the vendor he fired amid allegations that top executives showered former city transportation manager John Bills with cash, vacation trips and an Arizona condominium in exchange for helping the company win and grow the contract into the nation's largest automated enforcement program. Bills and former Redflex CEO Karen Finley have pleaded not guilty to federal bribery and conspiracy charges.

But Ferguson found the latest controversy stemmed from decisions Emanuel's administration made when it was handing the program over to Xerox in February. He said the city had previously ordered Redflex not to issue a ticket if it captured a driver in a red light violation where the yellow light lasted less than 3 seconds.

"However, after Xerox took over the operations of the RLC program, the City directed Xerox to accept RLC violations with yellow light times above 2.9 seconds," Ferguson wrote.

The city said it relied on a national electrical industry standard that allows for deviations in the hundredths or thousandths of a second. Ferguson recommended the city should change the standard back "in order to improve public confidence" in the camera program.

The Tribune reported Thursday that its review of 1,500 overturned tickets since April revealed evidence that the city had changed the rules on yellow light times when Xerox took over. In more than 200 of those cases, city hearing officers blamed yellow light times under the 3-second minimum required by the city.

Scheinfeld declined to answer Tribune questions last week about whether the city had changed the rules. But she said the yellow light times being rejected by judges as too short are in fact valid because they fall within an allowable variance of hundredths or thousandths of a second caused by fluctuations in electrical power.

Scheinfeld maintained in her letter to Ferguson that the sub-3-second tickets were valid but acknowledged the city had quietly suspended the lower threshold in September, after questions were first raised by hearing officers and the media. She said the city had now ordered Xerox "to stop processing any violation with an amber measurement under 3.0 seconds."

Asked why hearing officers hired by Emanuel's administration to enforce the traffic laws are routinely throwing out the tickets if the time is allowable, Scheinfeld told the Tribune in a Sept. 19 interview that the hearing officers are independent and the matter was being looked at by the inspector general.

"I can't speak for their reasoning. They are doing that independently, that is the whole point of the administrative hearing so people have an appeal," Scheinfeld said in the interview. "Those are independent actors that are going to be using their independent judgment."

But Ferguson said in his Friday report that the city's Law Department had contacted the Administrative Hearings department to set up training for the hearing officers regarding yellow light times. Ferguson said the training had not yet been scheduled when the city decided to suspend the new yellow light standard on Sept. 22.
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