Is Your Stoplight Watching You?

by Diane Dimond on April 15, 2013

Traffic Camera Are Everywhere

I didn’t realize I had broken the law until I opened an official envelope with a traffic ticket inside. Each time this has happened I’ve thought, “Darn those traffic cameras!” Okay, I likely said something spicier than that because there’s little else to say in one’s defense when confronted with photographic evidence that you have run a red light.

Twice New York State has sent me tickets for running a red light as I struggled to turn left in crushing New York City traffic. The third time the news came from my cousin, Sandy Hays, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

She called to tell me that when I had borrowed her husband’s car during a trip to my hometown I had been caught speeding on an off-ramp near the University of New Mexico. Embarrassed, I sent her a check for $75.00 to cover the fine. A month or so later Sandy sent me a return check saying the city had come to realize their speed-trap camera had malfunctioned. Ah, absolution!

Cams Capture Your License Plate Number

Not long after that episode Albuquerque voters decided to do away with the tattletale cameras all together.  Across the country, other locations did the same. Ballot initiatives to unplug the spy cams have passed in about two dozen cities in at least nine states. Other locales are considering ban too. A trend, you say? Not so fast.

This is big business, folks, and while the traffic cams may be gone where you live other parts of your state may still have them. In New Mexico, for example, Albuquerque ditched the cameras but nearby Rio Rancho did not and neither did Santa Fe or Las Cruces. Take it from me, these cameras are not going to disappear. For cash-strapped areas it could be budgetary suicide to do away with a program that brings in so much revenue. No place has enough ticket-writing cops to make up the difference.

The two major companies that sell the gizmos — American Traffic Solutions and Redflex Traffic Systems — rake in the dough, of course. So do the roughly 660 cities and towns in 24 states that have contracts with those companies. Each location negotiates its own deal with the firm of their choice, deciding whether it’s a 50-50 split of the ticket revenues or some other calculation. Both sides make plenty of money.

For Safety or For Fines Money?

An investigation by NBC revealed that Washington, D.C. brought in $18 million in camera ticket fines last year. In Texas, one single camera in Arlington has generated $2.5 million. Chicago’s expanded program is estimated to bring in $150 million this year.

Making money is not necessarily a bad thing in my book. I’m all for free market enterprise and if lawbreakers are caught and stopped from repeating their bad behavior then that’s icing on the cake. (Yes, even if I am one who’s caught!)

Supporters of the automated ticketing systems quote statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that show the cameras reduce accidents and save lives. Those opposed think it’s just another way for the government to get in your wallet and they point to a Federal Highway Administration study that concluded red-light cameras have actually caused more rear-end collisions as wary drivers suddenly slam on their brakes at an intersection. Many miss the days when an officer’s discretion might conclude they legally entered the intersection on a yellow light while the camera captures the moment the light turned red.

Questionable Dealings

Here’s what I find odious about how these companies do business. The mayor of Chicago actually banned RedFlex from re-bidding on their traffic cam contract after the Chicago Tribune reported company lobbyists had spent thousands on entertainment and hotel rooms for the city official tasked with awarding the lucrative contract.

Questionable Company Dealings

In Florida, American Traffic Solutions spent $1.5 million lobbying city officials and contributing to political campaigns. After tossing around all that money American Traffic Solutions became the main supplier of cameras to more than 65 Florida cities. None of this is illegal but it feels underhanded to me.

Most disturbing, is a revelation found in a study by the Public Interest Research Group. The PIRG reports that buried in the contracts local governments sign with these companies is a provision that mandates the narrowest duration of cautionary yellow light time. In other words, the shorter the yellow light time, the study concluded, “the more tickets a camera system issues (and) the more profit the vendor collects.” Buyers are not allowed to lengthen the yellow light time even if, as some studies show, it would reduce the number of accidents.

If this surveillance product is so good and saves so many lives – why all these machinations?

Shorter Yellow Lights Insure More Red Light Tickets

Judges in Baltimore are skeptical too. They scolded the city and threw out a passel of tickets after it was revealed city workers had shortened yellow light times below recommended limits. There have been problems with shortened yellow lights in states from California to Tennessee. In New Jersey, transportation officials ordered nearly two dozen traffic cam programs suspended after finding someone had tampered with yellow light timing.

Even after all these negatives have been revealed I still stick by my prediction that traffic cams will not disappear. In fact, you may soon find them in places you never imagined. Both companies have now started pushing cameras to be mounted on the swing-out arms on school buses. The idea, of course, is to capture photographic evidence of those who ignore traffic laws and drive around a stopped school bus. Currently, 10 pilot programs are underway in six states. Drivers beware.

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