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Red Light Cameras: Safety Devices or One More Step Toward a Surveillance State?

by John W. Whitehead

Recently by John W. Whitehead: Attention, Walmart Shoppers: Big Sis Wants You to Spy on One Another

Before Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, unleashed full body imaging scanners and “enhanced” pat downs on American airline passengers, she subjected Arizona drivers to red light cameras. In August 2008, Napolitano, then-governor of Arizona, instituted a statewide system of 200 fixed and mobile speed and red light cameras, which were projected to bring in more than $120 million in annual revenue for the state. She was aided in this endeavor by the Australian corporation Redflex Traffic Systems.

Two years later, after widespread complaints that the cameras intrude on privacy and are primarily a money-making enterprise for the state (income actually fell short of the projections because people refused to pay their fines), Arizona put the brakes on the program. And while other states – including Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, West Virginia and Wisconsin – have since followed suit, many more municipalities, suffering from budget crises, have succumbed to the promise of easy revenue and installed the cameras. As the Washington Post notes:

A handful of cities used them a decade ago. Now they’re in more than 400, spread across two dozen states. Montgomery County started out with 18 cameras in 2007. Now it has 119. Maryland just took the program statewide last month, and Prince George’s is putting up 50. The District started out with a few red light cameras in 1999; now they send out as many automated tickets each year as they have residents, about 580,000.

In most cases, state and local governments arrange to lease the cameras from the Redflex Corporation, with Redflex taking its cut of ticket revenue first, and the excess going to the states and municipalities.

The cameras, which are triggered by sensors buried in the road, work by taking photos of drivers who enter intersections after a traffic light turns red. What few realize, however, is that you don’t actually have to run a red light to get “caught.” Many drivers have triggered the cameras simply by making a right turn on red or crossing the sensor but not advancing into the intersection.

Each municipality has its own protocol for what happens next, but generally, the photos are reviewed by Redflex, which then issues tickets to the drivers. And this is where your right to a fair and full hearing largely goes out the window. Indeed, while there is a system for challenging a ticket, it is often convoluted and onerous, with the burden of proof resting upon the driver. Even the courts have a tendency to view the cameras as infallible. According to the Washington Post, Montgomery County, “in screening the tickets to mail out, has had to kick out 23,266 ‘violations’ from May 2007 to June 2009 because ‘No violation occurred/operator error.’ And 10,813 were tossed for reasons including ‘power interruption’ and ‘equipment malfunction.’” Once in court, however, the drivers were invariably found guilty 99.7 percent of the time.

Some opponents advocate ignoring the ticket altogether on the pretext that there are few real penalties to not paying. In Los Angeles, about 56,000 people have opted not to pay their red light camera tickets, resulting in roughly 45 percent of all tickets issued since 2006 going unresolved with no punishment.

Still, supporters contend that the ends justify the means because the cameras increase traffic safety. Yet research suggests otherwise. In fact, multiple studies indicate that red light cameras actually increase the number of crashes. For example, in Greensboro, N.C., the Urban Transit Institute at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University analyzed 57 months of data and concluded that the red light cameras were associated with a 40% increase in crashes. In Ontario, Canada, Synectics Transportation Consultants found a 16% increase in accidents at intersections with cameras, as opposed to an 8% increase at comparison intersections with no police enforcement or cameras. It also found a 2% increase in injury/fatal crashes at camera intersections as opposed to a 10% decrease with police enforcement.

Studies conducted in Virginia also show that the cameras result in an increased number of rear-end collisions. The Virginia Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration funded a study of seven years of crash data by the Virginia Transportation Research Council. The study associated red light cameras with a 27% increase in rear-end crashes and a 42% decrease in red-light-running crashes across six Virginia jurisdictions (Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax City, Fairfax County, Falls Church and Vienna). Overall, however, crashes increased because there are generally more rear-end crashes than red light running crashes. Thus, the study concluded that the results “cannot be used to justify the widespread installation of cameras because they are not universally effective.”

There are, in fact, far superior alternatives to red light cameras. For instance, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, intersection safety would be increased by simply lengthening the yellow light time or adding an all-red light interval. A study by the Texas Transportation Institute found that increasing the length of yellow lights by one second decreased the chance of accidents by 40%. Similarly, another case study revealed that a mere 30% increase in yellow light time produced substantial safety benefits. And when the Virginia Department of Transportation increased the yellow light duration from 4.0 seconds to 5.5 seconds at an Arlington intersection in 2000, the problem of red light running practically disappeared.

Rather than trading one type of crash for another, which is what red light cameras do, increasing the duration of the yellow light has proven to be effective in actually enhancing intersection safety. So why aren’t more communities extending the yellow lights?

Regrettably, a close examination of the history of traffic monitoring devices reveals that, on a larger scale, the profit motive figures prominently into the increased use of red light cameras. In fact, despite the fact that lengthening the yellow light duration has been shown to increase intersection safety, national guidelines have actually lowered the recommended yellow light duration at problem intersections, apparently in an effort to spawn the implementation of red light cameras across the nation.

Moreover, a 2001 report released by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey found that in 1985, the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) began to change the way signal times were calculated so as to provide at least three methods resulting in a reduction of yellow light time. The report ultimately concluded:

Transportation officials and engineers know that the yellow signal timing is essential to safety. The data showing this to be the case are found in their studies. Nonetheless, some have systematically and intentionally ignored the inescapable engineering fact that longer yellows would solve the so-called crises caused by shortened yellows. Red light cameras present a perverse disincentive for local jurisdictions to fix intersections with excessive red light entries. It’s hard to fix a “problem” that brings in millions in revenue. In other words, red light cameras aren’t fixing a safety problem, they’re creating one.

Virginia is a perfect example of what happens when politicians sacrifice safety to generate revenue. In March 2010, Governor Bob McDonnell (R) approved legislation that allows private corporations operating the red light camera systems, such as Redflex, to directly access motorists’ confidential information from the Department of Motor Vehicles. What this means is that not only will government agents have one more means of monitoring a person’s whereabouts, but a remote, privately-owned corporation will now have access to drivers’ confidential information.

Another provision signed into law by McDonnell also shortened the amount of time given to alleged traffic law violators to respond to citations resulting from red light camera violations. While prior law allotted 60 days for the response, the amendment cut that time in half to 30 days. This gives the driver scant time to receive and review the information, determine what action is required, inspect the evidence, consider appealing the citation and respond appropriately. In this way, by shortening the appeal time, more drivers are forced to pay the fine or face added penalties.

The bottom line is this: red light cameras are not safety devices – they’re revenue-raising devices for corporations, states and municipalities, which is bad enough when it comes at taxpayer expense. But when coupled with the entire arsenal of technological tools being aimed at the American people, from license-plate readers, mobile scanners and iris scanners to full-body scanners in airports, biometric ID cards, etc., they become yet another layer in our surveillance society. Ultimately, surveillance is about one thing – total control of the citizenry.

December 21, 2010

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead [send him mail] is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He is the author of The Change Manifesto (Sourcebooks).

Copyright © 2010 The Rutherford Institute

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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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