While politicians look for money and companies look for contracts, the story is the devices create a safer city. Chicago drivers know the truth.
So the wisdom of the city, articulated by the new commissioner of transportation, is that the red light camera system is a good thing? For those who actually drive in Chicago, that's hard to believe, given how the system actually works—or doesn't.
Waiting in court to fight a parking ticket a few weeks ago, I listened as the judgment was rendered in the case of the man in front of me. His crime: failure to come to a full stop before turning right on a red light at 3 in the morning. The verdict: guilty, with a $100 fine.
After court, with a successful outcome for my case, I headed south on Lake Shore Drive where there was no chance that I might idly reflect on the court experience and the absurdity of fining someone $100 for failing to fully stop on an empty street in the middle of the night. For here, on a road designed for moderate-speed traffic, I had to stay fully alert as cars cut in and out of traffic at speeds more appropriate for the expressway.
Inspired by my morning's experience, I accelerated to keep pace with those around me and found that, even at 60 mph (the posted limit is 45), I was too slow for the flow of much of the traffic.
Here, I thought, is real danger. Here is where cameras would be useful and promote safety.
While politicians look for money and companies look for contracts, the story is that red light cameras create a safer city. Drivers know the truth.
If safety were the real concern, cameras would line Lake Shore Drive, like the speed traps of by-gone days in small-town Illinois and Wisconsin.
Today, cameras at red lights cause more harm that they prevent. Does one stop or go on the yellow light? If one goes and the car in front hesitates, the result is a rear-end crash or a ticket, despite following the "rules."
And in either case, a camera's judgment is absolute and, without reasoned consideration, final. As the judge said to the unfortunate man who stopped, but not fully, at 3 a.m., "cameras don't lie."
While it is possible to laud state Comptroller Susana Mendoza's move to discontinue collecting red light fines due to corruption, it may be true that corruption is not the main problem. The real problem is reliance on a mechanism that cannot reason or consider the whole story and is situated in places designed not to ensure safety, but the flow of cash.
Marilyn Katz is founder and president of Chicago's MK Communications.