Magazine | December 31, 2014, Issue

The Red-Light District

At too many intersections, there are cameras of ill repute

On December 5, Newark, N.J., mayor Ras Baraka hosted a press conference to talk about red-light cameras — devices that snap photos of drivers who violate traffic laws, allowing authorities to issue tickets by mail. “The presence of the cameras causes drivers to think twice before darting into an intersection after the light has turned red,” said Baraka, flanked by a group of fellow New Jersey mayors and lawmakers. “This program provides us with a means to deter dangerous driving behaviors and hold those who do break the law accountable.”

Those citations also fuel Newark’s government, as Baraka, a Democrat, admitted in a follow-up interview: “We need that money,” he told the Star-Ledger. “The city is bringing in about $4 million a year.”

No wonder critics call them “scameras”: Money may not grow on trees, but for local governments, a red-light camera mounted on a pole near a busy intersection can be the next best thing, as it spits out tickets every time motorists miss a light by a fraction of a second. These cameras may go up in the name of public safety, but in practice they’re vulnerable to both malfunction and manipulation, ultimately serving the interests of revenue agents rather than drivers. “Red-light cameras are government-sanctioned theft,” says Declan O’Scanlon, a Republican assemblyman in New Jersey who turned their termination into a political cause. “They’re a backdoor way to take more of the people’s money but not to call it a tax.”

After two decades of gaining momentum, red-light cameras finally may be headed for the junkyard, as more public officials, activists, and ordinary motorists object to their spread and fight for their rollback. On Election Day, communities in Arizona, Missouri, and Ohio banned photo ticketing. Days later, regulators in California announced new rules that could push the Golden State’s red-light cameras into obsolescence. And on December 16, despite the pleadings of Mayor Baraka and others, all the red-light cameras in New Jersey went dark when a state law authorizing their temporary use expired, making New Jersey’s state legislature the first in the country to permit the introduction of red-light cameras and then to boot them out.

A good case can be made on behalf of red-light cameras: If drivers know that the electronic enforcement of traffic laws can hit them in their pocketbooks, then perhaps they’ll take extra care when they’re behind the wheel. At least that’s the theory that persuaded the first jurisdictions to adopt red-light cameras in the early 1990s. By 2012, more than 500 cities and counties in 24 states had deployed the systems, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. These included all sorts of localities, from small towns in Colorado and Tennessee to big cities such as Dallas, New York, and Seattle.

Do red-light cameras really work? Brenda Talent doubts it. She’s the president of the Show-Me Institute, a free-market think tank in Missouri, as well as the wife of former GOP senator Jim Talent. Three years ago, she opened her mail and discovered a $100 citation from Kansas City, Mo., along with a photograph of a car turning left on a red light. “It really ticked me off,” says Talent. “Nobody in our family was in Kansas City that day, and the car in the picture wasn’t even the same make or model as ours.” A reader had misread the license plate, interpreting a V as a Y. Talent called to complain, and a city official promised to correct the mistake. A few days later, however, a new ticket arrived, having repeated the original blunder. Another call finally fixed the problem, but the experience left Talent with a distinct impression: “By gum, they’re going to send out their tickets no matter what, because they’ve created this crazy system of using traffic fines to fund government.”

The occasional error might be tolerable if red-light cameras also improved public safety. But dozens of studies by governments, universities, and think tanks have found that it’s not clear that they do. Although the most robust research suggests that the cameras can cut down on the side-impact collisions that occur when drivers ignore red lights, they come with unintended consequences. The cameras also seem to increase the rear-end crashes caused by drivers who slam on their brakes when traffic signals turn from green to yellow. A choice between getting T-boned at an intersection or rear-ended at the approach to one is no choice at all, as the former is much more dangerous to life and property. Yet any analysis of red-light cameras and their effectiveness is complex, contentious, and often ruled by the unique conditions of particular roadways rather than universal principles.

Red-light cameras are indisputably good at one thing: generating cash. Nobody knows how much revenue they’ve raised for city and county governments over the years, but a conservative estimate would put the figure in the billions of dollars. “Politicians sell these cameras as safety measures, but they never live up to the promise,” says John Bowman of the National Motorists Association, an advocacy group. “They prey on drivers through aggressive ticketing.”

#page#When a traffic light turns yellow, drivers must decide quickly whether they have enough time and space to stop before it turns red. What they confront is a basic problem of physics, involving speed and distance as well as a range of variables that includes reaction times, the size of vehicles, the grade of the road, and the weather. Most drivers make the right decision most of the time, but transportation experts have a special name for that limbo-like area in which the choice to go or to stop is not obvious even to careful motorists. They call it the “dilemma zone.”

For those caught in this unnerving spot, everything hinges on the duration of the yellow light. Federal guidelines call for yellow lights to display for three to six seconds, depending on the nature of the intersection. They also recommend that red lights shine in all directions for a full second before any of the lights turn green. Local officials have a lot of discretion to adjust the precise timing. If they take their job seriously, their goal should be to reduce the size of the dilemma zone to its vanishing point, so that they can accommodate the overwhelming majority of drivers who want to obey traffic laws and stay safe.

When governments tie their budgets to ticketing, however, they give themselves powerful incentives not to think about red-light cameras as tools of enforcement but rather as robotic toll collectors. Last year, Noah Pransky, a television reporter in Tampa Bay, revealed that Florida officials had quietly approved shorter yellow-light times for intersections, allowing localities to issue millions of dollars in tickets. His reports pressured the state to reverse course, and Tallahassee has put new limits on citations. “Governments play these games everywhere,” says Jay Beeber, an activist in California.

Chicago is one of the country’s most enthusiastic operators of red-light cameras, having generated almost $500 million in revenue since 2003 from nearly 400 cameras. In September, a camera on Cicero Avenue caught Rosetta McKenzie, a home-health-care worker, going through a red light. She says she wasn’t aware of her violation at the time, but soon she received a ticket for $100. “I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong,” she says. “The yellow light at that intersection did not last three seconds.” So she contacted Barnet Fagel, who calls himself the “Red Light Doctor.” He has built a small business around fighting tickets issued by red-light cameras. For a fee, he will examine the city’s video evidence. On December 4, he and McKenzie went before a judge and showed that the yellow light at the intersection in question had flashed for less than 2.8 seconds. The judge voided the ticket. “These cameras have nothing to do with safety,” says McKenzie. “It’s all about money.”

The mere existence of a market for Fagel’s services suggests that Chicago abuses ordinary drivers with red-light cameras — and in October, the city admitted to having issued more than 77,000 tickets to drivers at intersections whose yellow lights had flashed for less than three seconds. This came three months after an extensive investigation by the Chicago Tribune found “clear evidence” that thousands of drivers had received tickets that they didn’t deserve owing to “faulty equipment, human tinkering, or both.” Reporters David Kidwell and Alex Richards documented a series of occasions when red-light cameras went through curious bursts of activity. One camera near the United Center, for instance, routinely issued a handful of citations each day — but for a two-week period in 2013, it averaged 56 per day and then returned to its former pace. City officials couldn’t explain what happened, even as they insisted that they had not meddled with the cameras and claimed to have no maintenance records.

Upon learning such details, an honest government would offer to refund wrongful citations. Chicago has done nothing of the sort, but then honesty never has had much to do with Chicago’s red-light cameras. On December 10, Martin O’Malley pled guilty in federal court to funneling $2 million in bribes from Redflex Traffic Systems, which until last year managed Chicago’s red-light cameras, to John Bills, a former transportation official for the city. Bills, who maintains his innocence, allegedly accepted everything from Super Bowl tickets to a condo in Arizona for helping Redflex secure the lucrative contract.

Academics tend to think that red-light cameras, when used properly, can offer advantages. “They can have a small positive effect,” says Joseph Hummer, an engineering professor at Wayne State University. Yet Hummer also offers an important caveat: “They should be the countermeasure of last resort.” What he means is that when it comes to driver safety at intersections, engineers have lots of options. They can lengthen sight distances, lower speed limits, or change the timing of signals. “Cameras are a pretty drastic remedy,” he says.

He’s right about that — and recent history shows that red-light cameras are also susceptible to drastic abuse. Perhaps it’s time for a drastic remedy: shutter them completely.

John J. Miller — John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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