Red-Light Cameras: The Trojan Horse


National Motorists Association


There has been wealth of attention focused on red light cameras over the past few months. Even though the press and politicians seem devoted to avoiding mention of the NMA, most of the stimulus for this attention has come from the NMA and its members.

It is slowly seeping in that red light cameras are primarily a money grubbing scheme. Any positive effect they might have can be equaled and exceeded by simple improvements and adjustments to traffic lights. In most instances adding a second or two to the yellow light duration eliminates red light violations at most intersections.

Once the tort attorneys put two and two together, they’re going to figure out that there is a huge population of clients out there – victims not of red light runners, but victims of city governments that chose cameras over intersection safety improvements. How do you think a jury is going to react to a city that could have prevented a tragic accident by simply lengthening a yellow light, when instead the light was kept short to feed a ticket camera?

Nevertheless, red light cameras have served their primary purpose; they have opened the door for automated/camera-based traffic law enforcement, most notably speed enforcement.

For two decades the insurance industry and ticket camera merchants have unsuccessfully tried to make photo radar a fixture of American Life. With the exception of a few cities dominated by cranks, social engineers, and nursing home residents, photo radar just couldn’t disguise its image for what it really is, a device to milk motorists. The savior came in the form of the red Light Camera.

The driving public deplores “Running” red lights, honestly and rightfully so. How could anyone argue against a device that can identify and penalize these miscreants? Even NMA members who normally shunned camera enforcement warned that we should get on the side of the angels and support red light cameras. We didn’t, and over time our position has been vindicated. We argued that red light cameras were just greasing the skids for multiple camera based enforcement schemes. And, that is exactly what has happened.

It turned out that the targeted red light runner “miscreants” were us, except we weren’t really “running” red lights. We were getting trapped by short yellow lights or other intersection flaws.

The ticket camera merchants and their apostles probably knew (or should have known) that red light violations are primarily the product of lousy traffic engineering decisions. The general driving public has an inherent desire and willingness to respect and comply with traffic lights. This is proven by opinion polls and, more importantly, universal compliance at properly designed and managed intersections. Therefore, condemning the driving population at large for wanton “red light running” was a red herring from the get-go. The real gold mine is, and always was, camera-based speed enforcement.

Unlike traffic signals, the driving public generally ignores posted and statutory speed limits. Even if individuals and opinion polls say otherwise, compliance with speed limits is just about zero. The reason? Most speed limits have no merit, no practical basis, and lack legitimacy. Therefore they are universally ignored. Even the cops charged with speed limit enforcement acknowledge this with their five, ten, and fifteen miles per hour enforcement tolerances!

Photo radar devices and their ilk have the potential to generate not millions, but billions of dollars of revenue from the fat, comfortable and apathetic driving public. There’s just a couple of pitfalls that the camera merchants have to avoid. First, they can’t get too greedy too soon. They have to acclimate the victims by keeping the fines low and other consequences of minor concern. No points, no license suspensions, and no insurance surcharges. (This is how they blew it in San Diego, California. The $271 fines, points, and insurance surcharges exceeded the masses pain threshold.) The elected political operatives on the East Coast are more practiced at this and have largely avoided a public uproar by keeping the fines low and the drivers shielded from more onerous penalties.

The second and more subtle challenge is to make sure driver compliance is not significantly modified. The more obvious assumption is that compliance will dry up the revenue. However, of greater concern is that compliance with today’s posted speed limits would bring transportation and our economy to a grinding halt! The only reason our streets, roads and highways in-and-around our major urban areas are not one massive linear parking lot is that higher speeds (often way higher than the posted limit) increase the capacity of our highway infrastructure. If the public were to actually drive the speed limit, especially on major arterioles and urban Interstates, thousands of people would starve to death in their cars before they ever reached their exits.

The ultimate goal of the ticket camera merchants is to have the public accept camera tickets as a surrogate speeding tax, just a little something extra they pay for the privilege of driving faster than the speed limit. The ticket camera fans must avoid getting greedy, taking their technology seriously as a safety tool, or stimulating demand for realistic and legitimate speed limits. Rocking the boat could turn off the tap on a multi-billion dollar industry. We certainly wouldn’t want that to happen, would we?

Reprinted with permission from the National Motorists Association.

October 14, 2010

Copyright © 2010 National Motorists Association

 

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