by John Neckonchuk[*]
January 29, 2013
While red light cameras (hereinafter “RLC’s”) are not exactly among the ranks of profound philosophical issues, these devices, which have metastasized throughout this nation’s intersections, warrant the close attention of taxpayers of the twenty-five states where they are in use. Once thought to be a life-saving revolution in traffic safety, the consensus has begun shifting out of this technology’s favor.
With New York pioneering the use of RLC’s in the mid-nineties, camera fever soon spread throughout America. Spun as a way to leave avoidable accidents at the nation’s millions of intersections in the past, and backed by several Washington lobbyists, municipal governments were convinced this was what “the people” wanted; however, a growing number of “the people” have become skeptical of the true motives behind their installation.
While studies have revealed an overall positive impact from RLC’s, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, one of their largest proponents, has been forced to concede an unanticipated flaw: while RLC’s have decreased the number of crashes due to inappropriate angular turns at intersections, rear-end collisions have increased, significantly offsetting much of the positive developments. The hypothesis is that forgetful drivers, those unfamiliar with a particular intersection, or those too focused on traffic signals instead of other vehicles in order to stave off a violation, must now slam their brakes to avoid a fine, leaving them vulnerable to rear-ending. Utility dictates the greatest good for the greatest number, but in the case of RLC’s, the means chosen to reach that goal are dubious.
One is left to choose sides among those, such as the National Motorists Association, which has objected to their use on the basis of privacy, due process, exorbitant fines and inappropriate motives, and others, who maintain their legality due to their deterrent effect and slight reduction in accident rates. This last point is crucial; local governments have authorized law enforcement to use them and, still further, have been able to do so largely without taxpayer funds. The Borough of Stratford in New Jersey explained how acquisition of this technology was possible: the cameras and monitoring services offered by the private company are financed 100% through the fines generated from their use. This indirectness precludes taxpayers from complaining about the use of their tax dollars—largely leaving the issue to be decided at the polls, as it was in several states where voters overwhelmingly opposed them.
In fiscal year 2011, the Borough of Stratford expected revenue from RLC’s to reach $295,000.00 while the actual revenue surpassed that estimate for a grand total of $441,589.00—$400,000.00 more than revenue realized from the second-highest of five other miscellaneous revenue sources. If something feels wrong about this, many share your intuition—again, New Jersey is illustrative. The Borough of Glassboro was found to have a yellow light that ran short of the legally required minimum (4 seconds), resulting in a million dollars of fines being issued, perhaps wrongfully.
Moreover, such figures are indicative of the rather lofty fines for RLC violations, usually between $45.00 and $1,000.00 in a given jurisdiction, though points are rarely assessed and fines are not increased with subsequent violation. Nevertheless, it seems to violate several legal and non-legal principles of basic fairness. Vehicle owners are assessed the fines, regardless of who is driving the vehicle at the time of the violation. Furthermore, this system operates in a vacuum, focusing on the letter of the law in order to obviate its spirit—to prevent accidents. A driver who speeds through an intersection, even negligently, deserves some form of criminal and/or civil penalty. Yet, the driver that makes a right-on-red a second short of the required stopping time while using all due caution is made to suffer the same as the former—justified only by signs warning of their presence and rather unremarkable statistics. The main struggle, however, is finding successful legal challenges against their adoption or use. Thus, the question now becomes, what can be done?
The first line of defense (and offense) is voting. In an example out of the Fifth Circuit, residents successfully organized to amend the city charter, over vehement opposition from the mayor and council, to abolish RLC’s after millions in revenue were generated in just a few years. Thereafter, the Council sought to dissolve its contract with the private firm, which in turn successfully sought its enforcement and to deny residents the right to intervene in the suit. The Fifth Circuit reversed, holding the intervention valid for two reasons: first, the residents had a tangible interest considering they had invested in abolishing the system. But most stunning was the holding that the City, due to its financial incentive in the RLC contract, inadequately represented its own residents in the suit.
The decision rendered by the Fifth Circuit demonstrated the severity of the conflict of interest and loss of public trust that RLC’s produced. While waiting for a red light to turn green seems so unimportant, there is something more pernicious about RLC’s that differentiates them from other regulatory methods. It is this “something” that, for many, has turned any appearance of legitimacy null.