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Are Red-Light Cameras Safety Devices or Cash Machines?

August 4, 2001, by Mike Antich

The reason was that the system's operator was alleged to have made unreported modifications to the system that increased the likelihood of getting a ticket. In particular, the San Diego Police Department discovered that the contractor's employees had moved underground electromagnetic sensors in three intersections about a year ago, but failed to adjust the internal mechanisms of the camera. This affected speed and location calculations that police use in court as evidence against motorists who challenge red-light running citations. The counter-argument by the city and the system's contractor was that the sensors were only moved 10 inches and that the discrepancy was not enough to wrongly ticket someone.However, according to the office of U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX), it has posted 23 pages of documents (www.freedom.gov) that indicate a preference by contractors and cities to place cameras at intersections with short-duration yellow lights and, in the case of San Diego, two intersections allegedly had their yellow-light times reduced before the devices were installed, which increased the likelihood of running a red light. In addition to generating revenue for San Diego, the contractor also gets a cut -- $70 for each ticket paid. The fine for running a red light in San Diego is $271. In San Diego, the 19-camera program generated $30 million in 18 months. Critics, such as Congressman Armey, argue that red-light cameras "provide a perverse disincentive for local jurisdictions to fix problem intersections. It's hard to fix a problem that brings in millions in revenue."As these devices begin to generate significant cash flow for municipalities, there is movement to increase fines. For instance, Montgomery County, MD, has issued 54,000 camera citations since 1999 and it now wants to raise the fine to $250 from $75.In the San Diego lawsuit, city attorney's office argued that the intersection cameras are designed to catch only flagrant violators. The red-light cameras are programmed to wait -- usually two- or three-tenths of a second after a light has turned red -- before photographing a vehicle to eliminate borderline violations.However, in Beaverton, OR, which also employs red-light cameras, KOIN-TV on Feb. 14, 2001, found that the duration of yellow lights was shorter at intersections with red-light cameras than at similar intersections without cameras. When similar allegations were raised in Mesa, AZ, the city increased yellow-light times by a second and red-light running tickets dropped by 50 percent. Once this occurred, the camera went from a money-maker to a $10,000 money-loser. Now there is a proposal to disconnect the camera. Red-light cameras are also employed in Australia, where a study concluded that there is an increase in rear-end collisions in a camera-controlled intersection due to panic stops by motorists fearful of being ticketed. In the U.S., there are allegations that decreased yellow-light times are also contributing to the increase in rear-end collisions at these intersections.Nonetheless, statistics show that intersection cameras are effective in decreasing red-light running violations, which, on average, have decreased by 40 to 60 percent. In fact, some jurisdictions that cannot afford the cameras have installed decoy cameras to reduce red-light running. Despite this, two-thirds of red-light runners escape penalties because most of the photographs don't capture an identifiable shot of the driver and the license plate. Contributing to this low conviction rate is that some scofflaw drivers are covering their license plates with polarized plastic covers to reflect the strobe of the intersection camera to overexpose the film. Others are using a spray to shield their license plates with a transparent tint to produce the same effects as the polarized plastic covers.A Decisive Majority Support Red-Light CamerasThere are 60 cities in Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington permit red-light camera enforcement, along with the District of Columbia.A decisive 65 percent of Americans want their state legislatures to authorize the use of red-light cameras, according to a 1999 Louis Harris poll. However, the expansion of red-light cameras is not a foregone certainly. On May 4, 2001, the Texas House of Representatives voted down a bill that would have allowed Texas cities to install intersection cameras. Public support may wane if the integrity of intersection cameras is brought into question. Also, organizations such as the ACLU are voicing concern about privacy issues and the potential of "mission creep," which may next entail citing motorists for seat belt or speeding violations based on photos taken by these cameras.Let me know what you think.

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Mike Antich

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Mike has covered fleet management and remarketing for more than 20 years and entered the Fleet Hall of Fame in 2010.

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