Device alerts drivers to red-light camera locations

Chicago Sun-Times

CHICAGO — Build a better mousetrap, and mice will look for new ways not to get caught.

Responding to the proliferation of red-light cameras in Chicago, the suburbs, and other urban areas, Cobra Electronics has launched a new line of radar detectors with a regularly updated database of red light and speed cameras.

(AP Photo)
(AP Photo)

The device uses a GPS locator with what Cobra calls its AURA (Advanced Universal Road Alert) database that will tell a driver when a red-light camera is approaching. The device first flashes a green signal when a red-light camera intersection is coming up, then an orange signal with an audible alert, and then a red signal. An arrow shows where the camera is.

At $389, the detector is pricey. But Cobra plans to offer a scaled-down version this June called the SL3 that alerts drivers to red light and speed cameras without the radar feature for $99 -- $1 less than a single red light ticket. Other companies offer camera-detection devices, but Chicago-based Cobra claims it has a more reliable database.

Why do drivers need a camera detector -- why can't they just pay attention to the traffic light and slow down when it's yellow?

Sally Washlow, vice president of marketing at Cobra, said the device provides "another indication to proceed with caution."

She noted that sometimes street signs warning that an intersection is monitored by a camera may be obscured by other traffic. She said that some people believe drivers slam on their brakes when they approach these intersections to avoid tickets, so the device helps "make you more aware" that the intersection could be hazardous.

Washlow doesn't think drivers will use the device to tell them which intersections don't have cameras, so they can sneak through reds. "It just provides more awareness in the vehicle," Washlow said.

Chicago has 141 intersections monitored by red light cameras, which have pulled in $122 million in revenue since the program started in November 2003 through this March, according to the Chicago Department of Revenue. In 2008 alone, collections totaled $44.8 million.

Jennifer Martinez, spokeswoman for the city's Office of Emergency Management, said the main goal of the cameras is safety, not revenue. Martinez said that at 10 pilot locations, where accident rates were measured two years before and two years after the cameras were put in, accidents dropped by 30 percent.

Martinez said the city has no opinion about red light camera detection devices.

"Whether it's a device or a sign, we just want residents to pay attention at intersections," Martinez said.

But Taft High School driver education director Michael Hionis sees such devices as a waste of money.

"I don't see what the benefit is," said Hionis. He teaches students to always look ahead -- if you're two blocks away and the light is green, you should anticipate that by the time you get to that corner, the light will be changing and you should be ready to stop -- whether there's a camera there or not.

"The light is there to make the road safe," Hionis said. "What we instruct our children to do is plan ahead, be prepared and be ready to obey things, so we can share the road safely."

Copyright 2009 Chicago Sun-Times

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