Red Light Camera 101: Know Your Enemy
It was 2003 when the very first red light cameras were installed in Illinois, right here in Chicago.
Since then, the City of Chicago has rapidly expanded it’s red light program to 157 intersections city wide and more on the way, according to Office of Emergency Management & Communications (OEMC) spokesperson Jennifer Martinez. The city, under it’s current contract with Redflex Traffic Systems, has the potential to have 220 red light camera intersections by 2012.
In addition to Chicago, many suburban towns have jumped onto the red light camera bandwagon over the past few years, making red light camera technology a pervasive threat to driver’s wallets
Because of this omnipresent nature of this technology, drivers these days need to be at least minimally aware of how these cameras work in order to avoid a bright red $100 ticket in the mail.
Over the course of the next few weeks, this site will inform and educate you on all aspects of avoiding red light camera tickets, including investigating license plate sprays, license plate covers and GPS warning systems.
Drive more carefully
The most effective way to avoid this type of ticket is to simply not blow through a red light.
The easiest and best way to do this is be more careful at intersections. Slow down to a stop on the yellow instead of hitting the gas to try beating the light. Driver slower and more carefully.
To some lead footed drivers, changing an aggressive driving mindset can be difficult. For some of us impatient and time challenged individuals, this change in driving attitude may take time. It’s worth it not only for the potential cost savings, but more importantly for the obvious safety issues.
While everyone knows red light cameras are about revenue, it’s hard to dispute the secondary effect of improving safety at intersections by decreasing red light running.
Red light camera driving tips
While driving more safely is the most straight forward way to not get ticketed, here are a few more suggestions to further insure you never receive those $100 red light camera tickets.
First, know where the red light intersections are located. Watch out for them in the towns, areas and neighborhoods you drive. Memorize them. Make note of them.
It has not been updated since April, but here’s the city’s most up to date listing of only 141 red light camera locations.
There are other online red light camera databases and maps that list red light cameras in both Chicago and the suburbs. While most try their best to stay up to date, it’s hard to have full faith in their accuracy.
Second, learn to watch out for the “Photo-Enforced” signs and for the cameras themselves in neighborhoods or towns you’re not familiar with. These are like early warning beacons. Look out for these signs and then modify your behavior accordingly when approaching these intersections.
Third, assume ALL intersections have red light cameras. That way, you will always drive more carefully and be more watchful at traffic lights.
The rules of the red light camera
Finally, you need to know about how the cameras work so you interact with them correctly. In other words, “know your enemy.”
The other day, I spent time learning the details of red light cameras with Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) spokesperson Brian Steele.
These days, OEMC handles our red light camera program. But back in 2003, CDOT spokesperson Brian Steele, was on the original team that piloted the city’s original red light camera program. So, Mr. Steele knows quite a bit about how these cameras work.
Steele explained that red light cameras are not running continuously. They are triggered by an under pavement sensor, located at the white stop bar markings, before the entrance of the intersection. This sensor only becomes active when the traffic light turns red. NOT yellow, but full on red.
So, if you are already within the intersection when the light changes from yellow to red, you are safe–no ticket.
The red light camera will not trigger if your vehicle is already within the intersection when the light turns red.
This is true even if just your front wheels are past the white stop bar on the pavement. You are still safe, as you are technically within the intersection, and can proceed to clear the intersection without being ticketed.
As example, if you’re in the intersection making a left hand turn and the light turns red, simply complete your turn and clear the intersection without fear of getting a ticket.
The under pavement sensor will only activate AFTER the light turns red.
This means, make sure you get your vehicle into the intersection while the light is either green or still yellow. Even if it’s just the very front of the car. If you’re front wheels are over the white pavement stop line, you’re in the intersection and therefore should not be ticketed.
Your other option on the yellow light is to stop at the entrance to the intersection BEFORE the light turns red.
“There is no gray area here,” according to Steele. “When you cross the stop bar (on the pavement) after the light turns red, the camera is triggered.”
Three seconds…only three seconds?
It’s important that you realize that the yellow light on all Chicago traffic lights have only a 3 second duration. Seriously, according to both Steele at CDOT and OEMC, it’s only 3 seconds. This is not a long time. Think about that and drive accordingly.
In fact, based on federal guidelines, the three second amber light interval is the extreme minimum time a municipality can designate.
Most suburbs surrounding Chicago have longer amber light intervals, so it’s easy for suburban motorists or visitors from out of town, to get caught blowing a Chicago red light because they are so used to longer yellow lights.
Right on red
Steele also warned to be careful when making a right turn on red. He says many people get red light tickets and think the tickets are erroneous because they didn’t actually go through the intersection, but took a right on red. But according to Steele, many people roll through the right turn, failing to actually stop first before turning right on the red. “As you know, Illinois law requires you to make a complete stop before turning right on red,” emphasized Steele.
So make sure you come to a complete stop before proceeding right on red, or expect a red light camera ticket in the mail.
I fought the law…but the law won, 98% of the time
Based on the details of the system and understanding how the red light cameras work, it’s not surprising that very few people ever beat a red light camera ticket. In most cases, when you get that letter with the bright red heading, you are guilty.
Fighting these tickets is next to impossible. The video and photographic evidence is nearly impeachable. In addition, the success rate at red light camera hearings is not quite 2%. As opposed to 50-70% for regular parking tickets.
“Over the two years I was involved with the program, I only saw 4-5 errors during that time,” says Steele. “And it wasn’t a system malfunction but human error.”
That’s 4-5 errors out of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of tickets that were issued. That’s pretty amazing.
Part of this success rate is because every instance that a red light camera is triggered, a human being reviews the incident and will only issue a ticket, when, according to Steele, “there is incontrovertible proof that a vehicle has gone through the intersection on a red light.”
We will get into details on how to contest red light camera citations and the few and only defenses that work in beating red light camera tickets in the future.
Avoiding Red Light Camera Tickets Part 2: Do license plate sprays protect you from red light camera tickets?