Traffic cameras again exposed

EDITORIAL: Red light district

If authorities put their sales pitch for traffic enforcement cameras on television, it probably would look like one of those ubiquitous pharmaceutical advertisements. “Tired of dangerous red-light runners?” the voice-over would purr to footage of a family on a pleasant drive through suburbia. “Traffic cameras make roads safer and save lives.”

But if advocates of the surveillance state were being honest, their commercial would end with the rapid-fire list of side effects that routinely sends you running to cover your kids’ ears.

“May cause an increase in rear-end collisions. Traffic signals subject to manipulation to increase fine collections. Cameras may be used to prosecute previously undisclosed offenses.

“If you suffer a loss of civil liberties, including due process protections, seek legal help immediately.”

The people of Los Angeles County are the latest to learn that traffic enforcement cameras often don’t perform as advertised. The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that the cameras which monitor 175 county intersections issue 80 percent of their tickets not to motorists who risk deadly crashes by speeding through stop lights or making sweeping left turns on red signals, but to commuters who make relatively safe right turns against red lights without coming to a complete stop.

These tickets, which cost drivers $159 per violation, produce tens of thousands of dollars in revenue every month for the county and 23 participating cities.

The cameras were installed with the promise that they’d hold reckless drivers accountable and reduce the number of broadside collisions caused by red-light runners. Motorists weren’t told that cameras would also be watching for rolling right turns, which almost never result in accidents and carry nearly no risk of causing a death or serious injury.

“I’ve never … seen any studies that suggest red-light cameras would be a good safety intervention to reduce right-turning accidents,” Mark Burkey, a researcher at North Carolina A&T State University who studies photo enforcement collision patterns, told the Times.

Cities and counties get to choose the offenses that intersection cameras will enforce. Many cities ticket only those illegal right turns made at 15 mph or faster. Some don’t ticket right-turn violations at all.

But in the city of Walnut, the camera manufacturer advised officials on the number of tickets that would need to be generated to pay for the hardware. Chuck Robinson, assistant to the city manager, said revenue considerations forced the inclusion of right-turn enforcement. “It had to meet that,” Mr. Robinson told the Times.

In Pasadena, only one of the city’s seven camera-enforcement insections nabs right-turn violators. “We’re kind of leery about right turns,” Norman Baculinao, Pasadena’s senior traffic engineer, told the Times. “They’re not really unsafe, per se. This is intended to be a traffic safety program. People who make right turns generally are going at a low speed.” Turning cameras loose on right-turn violators, he said, would be “more for revenue generation.”

Exactly. The promise of safer roads and lives saved turns into a de facto tax increase on unsuspecting drivers — and a revenue source law enforcement agencies refuse to give up.

It’s one more strike against a technology of dubious merit to begin with. At least six U.S. cities have been found to have shortened yellow light times to increase ticket revenue from red-light cameras. Texas Transportation Institute and Federal Highway Administration studies have found that enforcement cameras can increase rear-end collisions because ticket-conscious drivers become conditioned to slamming on their brakes at yellow lights through which they could safely have cruised. In the first half of this decade, Washington, D.C., actually saw an increase in fatal crashes at intersections that had enforcement cameras installed.

And drivers have little legal recourse upon receiving a camera-issued ticket. The cameras often can’t identify the driver, putting the registered owner of a vehicle on the hook for the violations of another driver — even a thief. Municipalities aren’t obligated to produce witnesses in the event of an appeal. If a mailed ticket doesn’t find its way to the correct mailbox or gets lost prior to delivery, a driver can quickly amass additional fines or face an arrest warrant. And under provisions of the Patriot Act, red-light cameras create all new opportunities for government intrusion and privacy infringements.

Traffic enforcement cameras are illegal in Nevada, but law enforcement agencies and a handful of Nanny State proponents seek a repeal of the statute every legislative session, always under the guise of driver safety. The 2009 legislative session will be no different.

Lawmakers should view any push for traffic-enforcement cameras with skepticism.

Published in: on May 30, 2008 at 12:06 am  Leave a Comment  

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