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

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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 u2018violations' from May 2007 to June 2009 because
u2018No violation occurred/operator error.' And 10,813 were tossed for
reasons including u2018power interruption' and u2018equipment 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).

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Best of John W. Whitehead

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