(WGN-AM)- When Schaumburg and RedSpeed Illinois announced their intention to install red-light cameras in the village last September, both parties hoped it would be a long-term commitment -- producing safer intersections, with an added bonus of much-needed money.
Yet nine months after saying, "I do," Schaumburg has called the whole thing off, citing no improvements in safety and a flood of angry-motorist grief, after red-light cameras at the village's lone picture-snapping intersection netted more than $1 million in tickets.
Bolingbrook turned off all its cameras in 2007 -- but it shows the red-hot debate over red-light cameras, even in cities that have already signed on the dotted line. In fact, it is often only after the cameras -- and their copious tickets -- arrive that the revenue-versus-safety arguments begin in earnest.
In Schaumburg, the problems started almost on Day One.
Carol Stream police chief joined camera company "We felt like, 'Wait, something is wrong here,' " Village Trustee Marge Connelly said before the board voted unanimously Tuesday night to terminate its contract with RedSpeed, Illinois' largest red-light camera company.
"We're not condoning running red lights, but in our case this was not the right way to handle it."
What was "wrong" in Schaumburg's case began with trying to do something right, several trustees said, recalling their unanimous vote last September. "From the outset this was all about safety," said Trustee George Dunham.
"Our board never went into this intending to collect a lot of revenue," said Ken Fritz, the village manager. "We felt that if it really improved public safety, it was good, and if it helped us with revenue, that was good too."
When Schaumburg first signed on to the red-light camera business last year, officials could hardly wait to get started, which is why they chose Meacham and Woodfield Roads as the first of their 10 planned camera locations. That intersection wasn't chosen because it had a lot of accidents -- the spot isn't even in Schaumburg's top 10 -- but because all of the intersection's approaches are in the village's boundaries and are local roads. This let village officials deploy the cameras much faster, avoiding the state approval needed for cameras on state roads.
Almost immediately, that selection paid off, literally, as cameras there flashed as fast as a paparazzi pack, mostly nabbing drivers for making right turns on red without a complete stop. In just 2 ½ months, the cameras spit out about 10,000 tickets, each a $100 violation.
"I was shocked, frankly, that the number of violations were so high for the right on a red light," Connelly said. "A lot of people were just confused about that intersection."
And they were angry: Shoppers snared as they visited nearby Woodfield Mall vowed to take their business elsewhere. (Marc Strich, the mall's general manager, said he kindly directed shoppers to the Village Hall.) Other motorists complained too. In response, village officials told RedSpeed to stop processing right-turn-on-red violations and only forward ones when drivers turned left on red or went straight through the intersection on red.
RedSpeed did just that until May, when the company told police officials "that because it was so labor-intensive to go through all violations compared to the number sent to us for final approval, they did not feel the time spent by their personnel was justified," wrote Chief Brian Howerton in a June memo, recommending that the village terminate its RedSpeed contract.
By the end of that month, RedSpeed was forwarding only left-turn-on-red violations, which totaled just 12 for all of May. Such a small haul hardly justified the camera and ticketing system, which from start to finish cost the village about $400,000 in fees to RedSpeed.
In that same period, "I would guess the village received about $550,000 to $600,000 net revenue," Fritz said.
Schaumburg officials stated Tuesday night that they terminated the RedSpeed contract because crash data, prepared by the Police Department in June, revealed that the intersection does not have a problem with running-red-light accidents nor did it have one in 2008 when the cameras were installed. That fact angers Brian Costin, president of the Schaumburg Freedom Coalition, a citizens group that campaigned against the cameras last September. "I think Mayor [Al] Larson and the board did not do their due diligence," he said.
Schaumburg getting out of the red-light camera business does not mean Illinois cities are no longer interested in signing up for the systems: On Monday, River Forest's board voted to conditionally hire RedSpeed to install two traffic cameras along Harlem Avenue.
But that board also voted 3-2 to endorse a two-tiered fine structure that would give a break to motorists ticketed for making a rolling right turn on red. Trustee Steve Hoke alluded to recent Tribune stories that found the overwhelming majority of camera-generated tickets were for making illegal right turns on red, even though traffic-safety experts say such infractions rarely lead to serious damage or injuries.
RedSpeed sales consultant Michael Lebert told the board he didn't know whether the company would agree to Hoke's plan, noting that RedSpeed operates cameras for nearly 60 Illinois municipalities, all of which charge $100 per ticket, the maximum allowed under the state's red-light camera law.
He also warned that such a fine structure could pose a technological challenge and lead to errors.
(The Chicago Tribune contributed to this story)
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