The Public Policy

Red-Lighting Photo Traffic Enforcement

Government's revenue-raising justifications should never trump safety considerations.

By 1.20.12

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BOULDER, Colo. -- Colorado State Senator Scott Renfroe is introducing a bill to ban photo traffic enforcement, including both speed and red light cameras, statewide. Sen. Renfroe frames it properly: "People need to be held accountable for their actions, but government should be about safety not revenue."

Many people are sympathetic to red-light cameras, assuming they cause fewer people to run red lights, a behavior especially dangerous to others. But that assumption also assumes that fewer red light scofflaws equates to fewer accidents at intersections. Perhaps surprisingly, a raft of studies appear to show that red light cameras may actually be increasing the number of traffic accidents: People afraid of the cameras often stop short, including when the light is yellow, causing the driver behind them also to brake suddenly, occasionally unable to do so in time and rear-ending the camera-fearing driver in front (and causing the same problem for the third car in this line of traffic). To be sure, those in favor of cameras have a couple of studies they quote supporting increased safety due to cameras.

I've never been sympathetic to speed cameras for a simple reason: Both here in Boulder and around where I used to live in Australia, speed cameras are put in places where there is little safety justification but where people are likely to be exceeding the speed limit, though not enough to have any implications for safety.

In the Blue Mountains of Australia, the cameras are routinely placed near the bottom of hills where one would expect cars to have picked up a little speed. In Boulder, they use soccer mom-style mini-vans with radar and cameras built in and place them alongside the road where two lanes merge into one. A person might speed up to get past the person he's currently driving next to since there's about to be room for only one of them, longitudinally speaking, only to see the stomach-sinking flash from the cynically pleasant-looking vehicle. Forcing people to slow down when they need to get away from the other car also arguably increases the risk of a rear-end collision in much the same way that red light cameras do.

In short, speed cameras are rarely useful for anything but revenue generation and likely were never intended to be anything else despite the soothing words of Nanny State politicians. And red light cameras, even if intended in part to be a true benefit to traffic safety, seem not to be doing so, leaving them as pure revenue raisers as well.

When did Americans become OK with the idea of the cameras watching so much of our every day life? If Orwell's Big Brother were in charge of traffic regulation, you can bet he'd love the idea of these cameras. In fact, we don't need to theorize about a fictional tyrant; after all, if New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants more traffic cameras "on every corner," they can't be a good idea.

To give you an idea of the revenue generation aspect of these cameras, Denver was ticketing people $75 -- the same fine as for running a red light -- if they stopped their vehicles even an inch over the painted line on the road before which a vehicle is supposed to stop when the light is red. When called on it, the city didn't have the sanity to eliminate that policy; it simply cut the fine to $40. As Senator Renfroe puts it, "The city of Denver must feel like they were caught with their hand in the cookie jar with their vote to lower the white line violation ticket cost. If it really is about safety and not revenue, how about refunding the difference to all the people they ticketed the past six months."

Some data for you:

An article on the Left Lane News website mentions that the Denver City Auditor is very skeptical that traffic cameras are anything other than a "cash grab," and is certain that the public views them as such. Further, "The city has little defense for the audit other than it would be 'impossible to conduct a study that would satisfy the auditor's concerns.' It's estimated that the city of Denver will generate more than $7 million in revenue from its mobile radar program alone in 2011."

The city of Des Moines, Iowa, collected $454,412 over the last three months of 2011, including $270,866 in December, from five traffic cameras.To give you an idea of the profit involved for the vendors, the Des Moines Register reported that "After paying Gatso USA a flat, per-ticket fee for processing and issuing the citations, the city netted $192,365 from the cameras in December." How much money do you think Gatso USA is willing to spend in campaign contributions and propaganda dissemination to keep this gig going?

Seattle and its neighboring town of Lynwood both plan to take more than $4 million from their residents' pockets with traffic cameras this year.

It's time to push back, as many other states have, against these cameras specifically, and against the Big Nanny state generally.

If you hear a politician defending the cameras, ask him to give you the reason for his position. If it's about safety, politely tell him that the data on that is, at best for his side, mixed. And, you might ask, if studies routinely show that the cameras do not improve safety, is he really willing to go on record to support them just for the sake of allowing a city or state to fleece drivers?

Furthermore, and this argument should appeal to at least some Democrats, the large amount of money involved encourages corruption, as has been seen in various locales around the country. Even the Nanny State-supporting Denver Post editorializes against the obvious corruption of the vendor of traffic cameras being given the assignment to study their effectiveness.

Democratic Colorado State Rep. Claire Levy responded to a request for a comment: "I want to see facts regarding effectiveness before making a decision. My basic approach is to let the local governments respond to their citizen concerns rather than have the heavy hand of state government tell them how to handle their traffic enforcement issues."

The libertarian-style argument has some appeal, except that this is not a case of the federal government imposing regulations on a state. Rep. Levy, with whom I often have good-natured political jousts, is a major believer in the Nanny State: she was the prime sponsor of a controversial bill to ban cell phone use by all drivers in Colorado. Thus, Rep. Levy embodies the fact the left only supports the fundamentally American approach of maximizing local control when that would tend to increase the power of government.

There is some good news, from the (very small) "Politicians and Police Departments Can Learn" files:

In October of last year, Peoria, Arizona shut down its red light camera program after data showed that collisions at those intersections rose once cameras arrived (even though -- and I can't explain this -- they also reported that the number of red light violations dropped over time). Also, as the Arizona Republic reported, "Last year, Peoria received nearly $300,000 from red-light citations but ended up with about a $3,194 loss when staff costs and payments to the Scottsdale-based Redflex were factored in."

Also in October, the city of Colorado Springs abandoned its red light camera program, along with other pointlessly intrusive and ineffective policies, for the same reason as Peoria, Arizona: there was no improvement in safety at the monitored intersections.

With Democrats controlling the Colorado State Senate, I'm not optimistic that Senator Renfroe's bill will pass. If it doesn't, every politician (of either party) who sides with the cameras should be made to hear about it come election time.

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About the Author
Ross Kaminsky is a self-employed trader and investor and is a senior fellow of the Heartland Institute. He is the host of The Ross Kaminsky Show on Denver's NewsRadio 850 KOA on Saturday mornings from 6 AM to 9 AM. You can reach Ross by e-mail at rossputin(at)rossputin(dot)com.