Published March 27, 2009
Running a red light may get more complicated — and more expensive — for some of the country's uninsured drivers.
Under a proposal by Chicago Alderman Edward Burke, cameras at 132 city intersections that currently enforce $100 red light violations would also be used to nab motorists whose cars are uninsured. Washington, DC officials told FOXNews.com it is willing to consider a similiar program.
Burke says the increased enforcement not only would make Chicago's roadways safer, but, at $90 per violation, would raise nearly $10 million a year for the cash-strapped city.
"I favor using these cameras to catch more than just motorists who run red lights," Burke said in January when announcing his proposal. "I believe it would also be a responsible use of these cameras to try and reduce the number of motorists who flaunt the law by driving without insurance."
Donal Quinlan, Burke's press secretary, stressed that the alderman's proposal to check for insurance coverage pertains only to vehicles already cited for red light violations. But in the interest of making money, he said, every scenario will be considered.
"I don’t think we're taking anything off the table," Quinlan said of the possibility of using cameras to check all vehicles for insurance coverage, regardless of whether they've run a red light.
"There certainly are different roads we could take to achieve higher revenue sources. I'm sure this will become part of the discussion as this proposal gets further consideration."
That has alarmed officials at the American Civil Liberties Union and AAA, who say the proposal appears to be more concerned with creating cash flow than safe traffic flow, and would bring Chicago a step closer to automatic law enforcement.
"This is being driven by revenue," said Jay Stanley, a national ACLU spokesman. "It's quite unseemly. The purpose of law enforcement is not to generate revenue — it's public safety. If all the talk is about revenue, I think it's a good indication that there's something fishy about this."
Stanley is also concerned with what he calls "mission creep."
"Today it's one thing, but tomorrow it could be another," Stanley said of how the red light cameras are used by authorities. "Automatic license plate scanning can be legitimate if it's for very narrowly-tailored purposes, but we don't want to see what we most strongly fear and oppose — technology for tracking innocent people going about their business."
Just last week, representatives from InsureNet, a Michigan-based company that provides instant insurance verification, told the City Council's Transportation Committee that by citing all vehicles that are uninsured — and not just those caught running red lights — up to $200 million could be generated if Chicago levied a $300 fine, well below the state fine of $500.
"$200 million would be a safe number," InsureNet President Jonathan Miller told FOXNews.com. "It should be more."
Using data entered into the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, an information-sharing network that links some 35,000 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, Miller said InsureNet's system can verify "whether that hunk of metal" is covered in less than two seconds. The company would charge collection fees of up to 30 percent.
Justin McNaull, director of state relations for AAA, questions the feasibility of collecting heavy fines from uninsured drivers.
"There's a lot of moving parts to all of this and they really need to be thought through," McNaull said. "For people who can't afford to insure their vehicles, what's the likelihood of them paying a $300 fine?"
Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the Illinois chapter of the ACLU, said he's troubled by the lack of a public forum for Chicagoans to discuss the potential ramifications of the system.
"They didn't even pass this proposal before [InsureNet] said they could raise another $100 million," he said. "It shows the slippery slope of technology. The technology is there and the infrastructure is in place for all kinds of surveillance."
Chicago's Transportation Committee held Burke's proposal last week for further debate. No date has been set for a follow-up hearing, but Quinlan thinks it'll ultimately be perceived as another way to make roadways safer.
"If you're running a red light and also happen to be uninsured, we would consider it a positive tool in the city's arsenal to catch the uninsured driving on city streets," he told FOXNews.com. "These are public places. One would think this is something that would be a well-received public safety measure."
Nearly 14 percent of motorists nationwide drove uninsured last year, according to the Insurance Research Council, and that figure is expected to rise to 16.1 percent next year based on current unemployment rate projections. In Illinois, an estimated 15 percent of motorists were uninsured last year, well below the five states with the highest rates — New Mexico (29 percent), Mississippi (28 percent), Alabama (26 percent), Oklahoma (24 percent) and Florida (23 percent).
And although red light cameras are authorized in about half of U.S. states and used in more than 400 communities across the country, the debate on their usage is far from over. Just last week, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour signed a law banning the use of red-light cameras, joining at least eight other states nationwide, including Alaska, Arkansas, Minnesota, Nebraska and West Virginia.
Studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have found that camera enforcement has reduced red light violations in Fairfax, Va., and Oxnard, Calif., by roughly 40 percent, and by up to 50 percent internationally. Camera critics like Barbour, however, point to several studies in the past decade that found that the cameras actually increase the number of collisions at intersections where they are installed.
InsureNet officials say a lot is riding on what happens in Chicago. Big cities that already use red-light cameras — including Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York and Washington — might want to follow suit. Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department Assistant Chief Patrick Burke told FOXNews.com that the department would be "willing to explore" the possibility of using InsureNet's system to dole its $500 violation to uninsured motorists.
"However Chicago goes, that's how other big cities will go," Miller said. "The uninsured vehicle rate will drop very dramatically when this thing's in place."