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Red-Light Camera Feud Reveals Ulterior Motives


By their very name, public servants claim to work for their fellow community members. The recent stand-offs over red-light cameras, however, indicate that many such officials have, to put it gently, conflicting interests.

Twenty-five states and Washington, D.C., use red-light cameras, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors last week agreed to a resolution (p188) in support of nationwide use. While a desire for safety is the repeated refrain, this does not comport with the actions of the programs’ administrators; nor does it follow from constituent wishes.

Research on the safety impact is strangely divided, to such a degree that one can’t help but suspect meddling behind the scenes. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, for example, claims the cameras reduce fatal red-light-running crashes by 24 percent and promotes expanded use. But a University of South Florida study contends that rather than improve motorist safety, red-light cameras significantly increase crashes and are a ticket to higher auto-insurance premiums.

Fortunately, we need not rely on the muddy research picture to assess the motives at play. Even if the public officials do believe there is a safety benefit — however doubtful that may be — their actions indicate their chief motive is, as many suspect, revenue generation.

The National Motorists Association notes that there are many ways to increase traffic-light safety without prosecution of drivers. For example, research from the Texas Transportation Institute suggests that increasing the amber light by one second reduces collisions by 40 percent. In fact, they found that the average run-in occurs when the light has been red for half a second or less, while almost every right-angle crash occurs after more than five seconds.

So have cities taken this painlessly applicable finding and extended the amber-light timing? Au contraire. At least six U.S. cities have been convicted of shortening the yellow light to catch more people on the red. The Texas study found a one-second cut from international standards to increase violations by 110 percent.

Deeper examination also reveals that the vast majority of these tickets go for rolling right-hand turns — 75 percent in the case of Los Angeles. A Safer Streets L.A. investigation describes the risk of these turns, which draw $466 fines, as minuscule.

“The average number of rolling-right-turn collisions each year was approximately 45 out of approximately 56,000 collisions annually in the City of L.A. This represents just 0.079% of all accidents, or 1 in 127,000; less than the odds of getting struck by lightning.”

In a recent radio interview, a caller questioned me as to the legal right drivers have to make rolling right-hand turns. He alleged that 90 percent of drivers do it. While I did not dispute that it is technically a violation, the actions of 90 percent of drivers — even with the risk of prosecution — indicate people know it is not dangerous. Why not alter the requirement to a yield and be done with the matter?

Additionally, if the goal were the noble one of safety, transparency and constituent support would abound. Regrettably, the administrators resist both.

New Orleans, where I write from, typifies this. The mayor and sheriff have publically claimed that revenue is not a consideration and that greater safety is their sole concern. However, they will not release even superficial data regarding the nature of the fines and the outcome of prosecutions. They have also lobbied aggressively, and successfully, against state level legislation that would put the program to a vote of the people. (That’s right; these officials hire lobbyists at both the state and federal levels.)

Mayor Mitch Landrieu described the move as the “single most dangerous bill for the City of New Orleans … picking the pocket of the City.” Perhaps the revenue stream does play a role after all.

The city of 344,000 people has more than 40 red-light cameras, from which its 2011 budget (p51) projects revenue of $18 million. That’s a 419 percent increase in three years and, at $145 per ticket, it corresponds to more than 10,000 tickets per month. (Considering that New Orleans has the lowest census participation rate in the nation — 45 percent — my guess is that fewer than half of offenders pay their fines, so the number is likely to be greater than 20,000.)

Disdain among residents, however, has been spilling over. A New Orleans-based Democratic state representative, Jeff Arnold, led the failed initiative to mandate resident approval. Additionally, this month, a group of self-described anarchists covered two cameras with garbage bags, and in October one camera suffered from an arson attack.

Like elsewhere, the tension between the city’s officials and its residents is only going to heighten, as are the less-than-sincere justifications.

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    Fergus Hodgson is host, editor, and founder of The Stateless Man radio show and e-newsletter and a policy advisor with The Future of Freedom Foundation.