Chicago May Use Red Light Cameras to Catch Uninsured Drivers

Published July 1, 2009

The city of Chicago is considering a new use for red light cameras: nabbing uninsured drivers. Technology experts and civil liberties advocates call the idea a violation of privacy and a misuse of traffic cameras the city originally justified for safety reasons.

InsureNet, a Michigan-based company, presented the city’s transportation committee with the idea this spring on the urging of Alderman Ed Burke (D). Using red light cameras to identify uninsured drivers hinges on insurance companies handing over the names and license plate information of all of their insured drivers in the state.

Insurers are offering the information to officials in 13 states, but not Illinois.

Big Money for Government

The driver information would be entered in the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, a shared database of information used by federal, state, and local officials. Once the data are entered, any uninsured car caught by a red light camera would be written a citation, which would be sent to the vehicle’s registered owner.

With citations estimated to cost between $300 and $500 apiece, InsureNet officials told the city council’s transportation committee Chicago could take in as much as $200 million a year using the system. That is an appealing figure to a city facing an estimated budget deficit of $300 million for 2009.

Called Threat to Liberty

Daniel Ballon, a senior technology expert for the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute, believes the city should look past the dollar signs and consider the privacy concerns in such a venture.

“It poses a serious threat to privacy and civil liberties whenever the government compels private companies to turn over customers’ personal information,” Ballon said. “It is not inherently troubling that police raise revenue from law enforcement activities. Fines help deter illegal behavior, and increased revenue can help motivate officers to do their job well.

“But the Bill of Rights keeps a motivated police force in check,” Ballon added. “And I believe that the cameras likely violate a citizen’s Sixth Amendment right to confront his accuser. Absent an actual witness, the accused cannot cross-examine a camera.”

There are currently red light cameras at 132 intersections in the city of Chicago. InsureNet would get 30 percent of what the city would collect on the venture. At press time, the city’s transportation committee had yet to take action on the proposal.

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.