By David Kidwell and Hal Dardick
8:26 PM CDT, July 23, 2014
Facing intense criticism for its oversight of the city’s red light camera program, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration on Wednesday said that at least 9,000 drivers will get a chance at a refund of $100 fines issued during suspicious ticket spikes identified in a Tribune investigation.
But just how much of a second chance they’ll get is unclear at best. Emanuel aides won’t say what form the review process will take, whether the city would consider the fairness of tickets issued because of inconsistent enforcement or faulty equipment, what happens in cases where video no longer exists or what recourse drivers will have if they don’t like the results.
And the Emanuel administration still hasn’t acknowledged that any tickets were issued improperly and described the wild swings in red light tickets as normal.
“There are always spikes in any automated enforcement program due to fluctuations in traffic volume and driver behavior,” Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld told aldermen during an unscheduled appearance at a City Council committee hearing. “When traffic is impacted by normal construction, special events, or even weather, we cannot always predict where traffic will be pushed, but it is normal for drivers to find their own alternative routes that could include red light cameras.”
One Northwestern University traffic expert who reviewed the Tribune’s findings called her assertion “nonsense.”
“Come on. That would explain spikes of that level? Nonsense,” said Joseph Schofer, an engineering professor who sits on city transportation advisory panels. “It’s just fundamental, you can’t look at something that is red and call it green.
“It seems obvious to me what they are doing now,” he said. “They don’t have any explanation. They are under this intense pressure, and now they are grasping.”
The chance for a review comes less than a week after the Tribune published the results of a 10-month investigation that found thousands of fines paid by drivers who got cited during dramatic spikes in tickets the city said it could not explain.
The analysis of more than 4 million tickets issued since 2007 found cases where intersections that had issued just a few tickets a day temporarily began spewing them at rates of up to 56 per day, a phenomenon that traffic engineers shown the research say is likely the result of faulty equipment, human tinkering or both. City transportation officials have acknowledged that faulty equipment is a likely culprit in some of the ticket surges.
On Tuesday, Mayor Emanuel was non-committal about issuing refunds. “That’s not for me to decide,” he told the Tribune.
A day later, Emanuel’s transportation commissioner read a statement to alderman and said the city will notify drivers by mail of their opportunity to have each violation “reviewed” to “determine its validity.”
Scheinfeld told aldermen that her office will review even more tickets with an eye toward refunds if other spikes are identified. “With this effort we will be contacting individuals cited during these spikes to extend a new opportunity for review. If a ticket is found to be unwarranted, a refund will be issued,” she said.
“Nothing is more important than maintaining the public’s trust in our safety programs,” said Scheinfeld, who added that the city will begin posting online the daily ticket counts at each camera location. “With that in mind, the mayor has approved three immediate actions to ensure tickets were not given in error and strengthen the program moving forward.”
The Emanuel administration said it has identified 9,000 tickets for potential review at 12 intersections where the Tribune found the most dramatic spikes occurred. But the Tribune also found dozens of additional spikes representing tens of thousands more questionable tickets.
Scheinfeld, who did not respond to a request for an interview, never addressed whether drivers would be forced to accept the results of the city’s new review, whether they could make a personal argument before a hearing officer and whether they would be allowed to appeal the results.
She also did not address what would happen in those cases where video is no longer available to be reviewed online. The city says it routinely destroys video after two years.
City transportation officials were first presented with the Tribune’s findings in January and said they were unaware of the ticket anomalies and had no explanations for them. By Friday, when the Tribune report was first published online, the city said it had not found an answer.
On Wednesday, Scheinfeld told alderman that city transportation officials have a new theory on one of the ticket spikes: bridge repairs on Interstate 57 surrounding the time of one particular spike at Halsted and 119th streets may have prompted an increase in traffic flow at that intersection.
Told of the city’s newfound reasons, Northwestern’s Schofer said he was skeptical. “I would want to see their traffic flow numbers to prove it.”
Neither Scheinfeld nor her staff have offered an answer for the rocketing rate of appeals for tickets issued during the 1,717-ticket spree at the Halsted intersection. Nearly half of the appeals of tickets during that particularly dramatic spike at the Halsted intersection were successful, a rate more than four times higher than the city average.
Experts say the high rate of bad tickets suggests many more that weren’t appealed should have been, but video from that spike is no longer available on the city’s website. Scheinfeld did not say what her office intends to do about spikes where video evidence is no longer available.
One expert who reviewed the Tribune’s findings suggested that drivers in cases where enforced behavior saw dramatic and unannounced shifts were treated unfairly and are due refunds regardless of any review of the video.
For instance, the Tribune examined a year’s worth of tickets at the intersection of Lincoln Avenue and McCormick Boulevard on the city’s North Side. It found that of 563 tickets issued during a 12-day spike, all but three were for right turns on red from the right-turn-only lane. In the six months before the spike, no tickets were issued from that lane for a right turn.
Also, yellow light times at the same light shot back and forth intermittently between three and four seconds during the 12-day spike, the Tribune found. The city has yet to explain what caused these fluctuations, but experts say such inconsistent enforcement is both unfair and undermines the central purpose of the camera system: to train drivers over time.
“The camera is a safety countermeasure that is specifically installed to try to help with a particular problem,” said Joseph Hummer, professor and chair of civil and environmental engineering at Wayne State University in Detroit. “If one day they decide, ‘Well, let’s go after these other problems over here,’ that is violating what I consider the public trust.
“The public has to believe this is a safety countermeasure and not a money making-scheme,” said Hummer, who added that “certainly the fair thing to do” is offer refunds to all drivers ticketed during such spikes.
The city, however, wants to review the ticket videos one at a time to consider the behavior of the drivers instead of how the camera system performed. One Chicago lawyer, who is currently awaiting a decision from the Illinois Supreme Court of the legality of the entire red light program, said the city’s plan to review each ticket does not address the central issue of unfairness.
“Most ticket recipients will likely lose,” said Patrick Keating, who is among several lawyers looking for clients ticketed during the spike for a potential class-action lawsuit. “Even the slowest, most cautious ‘roll’ through an intersection is a technical violation of the law. Subjecting motorists to the vagaries of the city’s enforcement a second time is no solution to this problem.”
Indeed, city transportation officials said they have reviewed a random sample of videos from the spikes and found none where the drivers did not in some way violate the law.
Schofer said he finds the “perfect grade” astonishing.
“That’s a very comforting report,” he said. “I guess everything is fine then.”
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