If Evanston follows the example of other Chicago suburbs, cameras could soon photograph hasty drivers blasting through red lights.
Advocates say the camera systems — which lead to tickets in the mail for the law-breaking drivers — can improve traffic safety and raise funds to ease a town’s budget crisis.
Bellwood, where Comptroller Roy McCampbell likened the cameras to “lotto or casino type operations,” makes $60,000 to $70,000 a month by handing out citations for violations documented by cameras at one intersection.
Schaumburg cashed $1 million in three months with its own camera system. At one point, Bolingbrook raised $140,000 a month.
Skokie officials say that the system is for public safety, not revenue, and plan to locate their camera at one of the city’s top five most dangerous intersections.
Skokie will install its camera system at Dempster Street and McCormick Boulevard, near the Evanston border. A one-day study conducted by the camera company Skokie contracted showed that at least 31 violations occurred at the intersection.
If that one day is typical, the city could make around $93,000 monthly by charging $100 a ticket, though some studies say that number will shrink by 40 percent to 60 percent as people became more aware of the camera.
But that’s still a lot more than the $4,400 monthly fee Skokie must pay to its camera company to maintain the camera.
And Skokie’s intersection, with an average of 26,000 vehicles passing through it daily, sees the about the same amount of traffic as six of Evanston’s top 10 intersections for accidents.
Evanston’s top intersection for accidents, Dempster Street and Dodge Avenue, sees a daily average of 27,200 vehicles, according to the Public Works Department.
So, red light cameras probably could make money for Evanston. Amid a budget crisis that has officials projecting a 5 percent drop in revenue — the city could use the money.
But whether any city should use red light cameras to raise funds is another question, and one that became painfully relevant in Schaumburg earlier this year.
Like Skokie officials did in November, Schaumburg trustees emphasized public safety when they unanimously approved for their cameras in September.
When the city made $1 million at one intersection though, residents and business owners accused officials of using public safety to mask financial motives.
But Schaumburg’s haste to install its first camera may have contributed to the outcry.
Schaumburg located its camera system at an intersection that was not particularly dangerous – that was not even among the city’s top 10 most dangerous intersections.
Schaumburg officials say they were trying to avoid placing the cameras on state roads so the city would not have to wait for approval from the state.
Schaumburg also drew criticism because most citations issued were for a maneuver less dangerous than running straight through a red light — failing to come to a full stop before turning right on red.
A 2001 study concluded that the average motorist would have to drive 1 billion miles before being involved in a collision caused by right-turning on red.
After the public outcry Schaumburg negotiated with the camera company so that right turns were ignored. The company complied but ultimately decided that the change of plans had made the cameras financially infeasible for them.
And Schaumburg is not an unusual case. A Chicago Tribune investigation last month showed that cameras are often placed at relatively safe intersections and that the vast majority of citations are for rolling right turns.
But regardless of how cities use them, studies show that red light cameras make the streets safer, and not just where the cameras are placed, says Joseph Schofer, a professor of civil engineering at Northwestern University.
“If you use a red light camera to enforce in one location, you can improve the observance of red lights in other nearby locations,” he says.
Although the cameras sometimes increase rear-end collisions when drivers slam on their breaks to avoid being snapped, the decrease in more dangerous right-angle collisions more than makes up for it, reducing the total number of crashes that cause injury by 20 to 30 percent.
On average, the Evanston Police Department handles 3,400 motor vehicle crashes each year, of which failure to obey stop signs and red lights is among the top five causes. Officers issued 583 citations for red light violations in 2008.
Despite the apparent safety and financial benefits, the City Council has not given red light cameras much consideration, though the cameras were recommended in the Multi-Modal Transportation Plan.
“It depends on how desperately the community feels we need new revenue sources,” Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said.
Evanston’s Division of Transportation conducted an unscientific public survey last year that included 400 respondents and resulted in a mild approval of the cameras, though not necessarily for their financial benefits to the city.
“I’m not sure that’s how we want to make revenue,” Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, says. “Making people feel like we’re watching them all the time.”