Red-Light Cameras: Big Brother Picking Your Pocket
Devices Are Not About Safety — They're About Making Big Money
By DON NOEL
February 26, 2012
If you've never slipped through a right turn on red without bringing the wheels to a dead stop, raise your hand and say, "Not me!"
If you've seen a serious accident — not just a fender bender — because someone executed the typical "rolling stop" when turning right, raise your hand and say, "I saw one!"
Still pretty quiet out there.
Maybe you can see why Tennessee legislators enacted a law last year banning citations for improper right turns on red if the only evidence was traffic camera video. Two Arizona companies that install and service traffic cameras in Knoxville and smaller Tennessee towns — and are paid by sharing the fines — are challenging the law as a violation of their contracts.
The town of Farragut is small enough to make the numbers easy to grasp. It has cameras at four intersections, and issued 2,812 citations in a four-month period from July of 2010 — $140,600 worth of fines at $50 a pop. In the same period a year later, when cameras were no longer valid evidence of right-turn-on-red, citations fell to 1,399, a hefty $70,650 setback for the town and Redflex Traffic Systems.
Farragut's contract is presumably similar to Knoxville's with another provider: $40 of every $50 fine went to American Traffic Solutions until each installation had produced $4,500 of fines each month; then fines were split 50-50. In a three-month period the first year there were 30,000 citations — worth a cool $1.5 million. In the same period after the restriction was enacted, there were almost 90 percent fewer citations: 3,200.
Revenue has to be a major reason that cities and towns like the idea of red-light cameras. The General Assembly seems poised to authorize them in Connecticut.
There was a time, before the interstates, when a Connecticut driver passing through small Southern towns learned to drive very, very carefully, because many were notorious speed traps. The sheriffs collected the fines on the spot. A motorist could challenge the ticket in court, but only by returning weeks later. The rational choice was pay the fine, drive on, and keep a sharper lookout for sheriffs hiding behind billboards.
Red-light cameras are a latter-day version of those long-ago speed traps. Maybe not so long ago: Bluff City, Tenn., installed two highway cameras. To be sure they were profitable, the speed limit was reduced from 55 to 45 on a short stretch as motorists neared the cameras.
I think there are sound civil liberties arguments against the devices. Our Sixth Amendment right to confront our accusers applies only to criminal charges, not traffic violations, but the 14th Amendment's due process requirements of reasonable notice and meaningful opportunity to be heard do apply. If a cop tickets you for going through a red light, you'll remember the incident; you can go to court, tell a judge the extenuating circumstances — or even deny you were at fault.
If you get a notice in the mail that a camera saw you go through a red light sometime last week, you're unlikely to remember the incident, and won't be able to argue, for example, that the robotic camera couldn't see a looming hazard that led you to run the light, or couldn't see why mimimal traffic made a rolling right-hand-turn unimportant. You'll mail in the fine — plead guilty, in effect — with no more recourse than motorists caught in speed traps two generations ago.
As Connecticut moves toward authorizing these intrusive Big Brothers, Republicans in the Colorado legislature are leading a drive to ban them, arguing that municipalities use them as revenue boosters that do little for traffic safety. They've been banned in Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Houston and Los Angeles have pulled their cameras out.
The least our legislators can do is to follow Tennessee and bar their use for right-turn-on-red violations. That might prompt a fresh onslaught of well-heeled lobbyists, arguing that public safety is in dire jeopardy unless wheels come to a dead stop before right-hand turns. Or it might make the deal so unprofitable that the camera contractors wouldn't bother with Connecticut.
Because it isn't really about safety. It's about money.
Don Noel of Hartford is immediate past chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, which opposes traffic cameras, although the views here are his.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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