Thousands of Chicago drivers have been tagged with $100 red light fines they did not deserve, targeted by robotic cameras during a series of sudden spikes in tickets that city officials say they cannot explain, a Tribune investigation has found.
The Tribune's analysis of more than 4 million tickets issued since 2007 and a deeper probe of individual cases revealed clear evidence that the deviations in Chicago's network of 380 cameras were caused by faulty equipment, human tinkering or both.
Chicago transportation officials say they had no knowledge of the wild swings in ticketing until they were told by the Tribune — even though City Hall legally required the camera vendor to watch for the slightest anomaly in ticketing patterns every day. Many of the spikes lasted weeks.
The lack of oversight raises new questions about the controversial traffic enforcement program, the largest in the country, now embroiled in a federal corruption probe into allegations that the city's longtime red light camera manager took bribes from the camera company.
“Something is terribly amiss here,” said Joseph Schofer, an associate dean at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science who reviewed the Tribune's research.
Schofer, who has served as an adviser on city transportation committees, said the findings prove “the system is broken.”
“The only reasonable explanation is that it is something involved in the technology,” he said. “Whether it's diabolical or mechanical or electronic and accidental, I can't look inside people's souls and know that, but the evidence is pretty strong.”
He and three other national experts who reviewed the Tribune's findings suggested that drivers are entitled to refunds, whatever the cause of the spikes.
A 10-month Tribune investigation documented more than 13,000 questionable tickets at 12 intersections that experienced the most striking spikes; similar patterns emerged at dozens of other intersections responsible for tens of thousands more tickets. Among the key findings:
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Cameras that for years generated just a few tickets daily suddenly caught dozens of drivers a day. One camera near the United Center rocketed from generating one ticket per day to 56 per day for a two-week period last summer before mysteriously dropping back to normal.
Tickets for so-called rolling right turns on red shot up during some of the most dramatic spikes, suggesting an unannounced change in enforcement. One North Side camera generated only a dozen tickets for rolling rights out of 100 total tickets in the entire second half of 2011. Then, over a 12-day spike, it spewed 563 tickets — 560 of them for rolling rights.
Many of the spikes were marked by periods immediately before or after when no tickets were issued — downtimes suggesting human intervention that should have been documented. City officials said they cannot explain the absence of such records.
Drivers who appeal red light tickets in Chicago win less than 10 percent of the time, but drivers caught in one severe spike won 45 percent of the time. Yet the vast majority of drivers caught during spikes never appealed and therefore missed an opportunity to have bad tickets thrown out.
The experts said the deviations identified by the Tribune are not supposed to happen in an automated enforcement system and should have set off warning flares from City Hall to the Phoenix headquarters of the city's longtime camera vendor, Redflex Traffic Systems Inc.
"This was a lightning strike, and lightning strikes should not happen in a case like this," Schofer said.
The experts all said the available evidence leads them to only two possible explanations — that ticket procedures were quietly broadened to catch more violators, or that malfunctions led the system to wrongly tag lawful drivers. In either case, they said, fail-safes that should have guarded against such anomalies didn't do their job.
Consistency and fairness are crucial to traffic enforcement because the goal is to make streets safer by changing driver behavior. Any sudden change in enforcement — either by design or by malfunction — undermines that goal, the experts said.
All the experts agreed that the city should consider refunds. Some said the city has an ethical obligation to drivers who were ticketed unfairly, even in those cases in which they were technically in violation of the law.