1, 2, 3, red light

Authorizing robot cameras to photograph red-light runners and mail out traffic tickets to vehicle owners — sometimes months after the event — is a proposal that regularly resurfaces at the Nevada Legislature. Proponents wave the prospect of millions of dollars in new revenues, as well a promise that the cameras can reduce accidents.

There’s no doubt municipalities that have contracted to install the systems have profited — Chicago alone makes $60 million per year from such robot tickets.

But there’s now evidence that, by refusing to make Nevadans guinea pigs in this experiment, Nevada lawmakers may have dodged a bullet.

While USA Today reports that 555 communities around the country now employ the cameras, nine states — including Arkansas, Montana, Nevada, and New Hampshire — ban them.
Meantime, numerous municipalities that gave the devices a try (including Los Angeles) have recently pulled the plug, and of two dozen referendums on installing the cameras, all but one have failed.


Opponents have long complained that the system violates a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confront his or her accuser, of course. In Pasco County, Florida, Judge Anne Wansboro dismissed a traffic camera charge on Feb. 17, saying; “The law impermissibly shifts the burden of proof to the defendant, and therefore does not afford due process.”

But the problems don’t end there.

— When former Harrison County Township Mayor Mike Koestler became one of more than 12,000 motorists ticketed for running a single red light at a busy intersection in Glassboro, N.J., in 2010, he told the local newspaper “I remember thinking ‘I can make this,’ and I was cruising along at normal speed, and all of a sudden it clicked off in red. I thought, ‘This is wrong. It’s way too quick.’”

Tell it to the judge? Mr. Koester did better than that. He researched the timing of the light and contacted the state Department of Transportation. Result: The municipality now admits a single red light camera generated $1 million worth of tickets at an intersection with an “illegally short yellow.” Motorists were given just 3 seconds of yellow warning before the camera began snapping — as opposed to the 4 seconds mandated by state regulations, according to the Gioucester County Times.

The borough contended the yellow was never lengthened after the speed limit was increased from 25 mph to 35 mph in 1993. So they returned the fines, right?

Well, not exactly. In a closed-door session, the Glassboro Borough Council met to discuss a threatened lawsuit over the issue and decided not to refund the $85 fines, instead merely “allowing” motorists to take the time to come to court in person to seek a legal proceeding to return the money.

(While a one-second difference in the duration of a yellow light might seem insignificant, the vast majority of red light violations happen when drivers misjudge the end of the yellow light by less than 0.25 seconds — literally the blink of an eye — according to the Texas Transportation Institute. A yellow shortened by one second can increase the number of tickets issued by 110 percent, according to a TTI report.)

— After months of debate, the Los Angeles City Council voted last July to shut down that city’s controversial re-light-camera program. Some officials publicly derided the steep red-light camera fines, which often topped $500, as “voluntary” because county courts were not aggressively penalizing those who simply ignored the citations.

— In Port Lavaca, Texas, authorities are refusing to release documents that might reveal whether additional motorists have received automated tickets for running a green light, as resident Byron Schirmbeck says he did. Schirmbeck filed a formal complaint with Calhoun County District Attorney Dan Heard last fall over the city’s refusal to comply with the state open records statute.

— Despite the claims of companies that sell ticket cameras, there’s no independent verification that photo enforcement devices improve highway safety or reduce overall accidents, insists the National Motorists Association Foundation. In fact, “Once red-light cameras start making money for local governments, they are unlikely to jeopardize this income source” by introducing engineering improvements that can themselves decrease congestion and pollution, including traffic light synchronization.

— Finally, recent studies by The Virginia Transportation Research Council and by North Carolina A&T State University found overall increases in crashes after cameras were installed. A report from Canada’s Ministry of Transportation’s concluded that jurisdictions using photo enforcement experienced an overall increase in property damage and fatal and injury rear-end collisions, probably due to drivers slamming on their brakes. An Australian study echoes those findings.

While, on the other hand, a Texas Transportation Institute study found that merely INCREASING yellow-light times by one extra second yielded a 40-percent reduction in collisions.

What’s the goal here — added safety, or a new stream of revenue?

Other than looting motorists’ pockets, this particular manifestation of the surveillance state doesn’t seem to be working out very well for those who’ve tried it. Maybe we don’t need it, here, after all.

2 Comments to “1, 2, 3, red light”

  1. Jerry A. Pipes Says:

    The goal is obvious. Follow the money! That’s the goal of most speed limit signs as well.

  2. terrymac Says:

    I lived in S. California for about 9 years, and did a lot of walking and cycling, which gave me a chance to observe a lot of drivers and traffic signals. I witnessed at least one accident and many near-accidents caused (in part) by lights which were shortened to collect revenues. While not excusing the incompetence and risky behavior of some drivers, my seat-of-the-pants observation is that red light revenue cameras lead to unsafe conditions and should be completely banned.