Red-Light Cameras About Revenue, Not Safety

Red-light camera, city money-makers more than anything else, defy the Constitution.

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Gary Biller is president of the National Motorists Association.

Red-light cameras threaten the public interest in critical ways and should be outlawed across the country. Fifteen states already have banned automated traffic enforcement, mostly on constitutional grounds. Several key tenets of a citizen's due process rights are violated by red-light camera ticketing. Among them:

  • There is no certifiable witness to the alleged violation. The defendant loses the right to cross-examine his accuser in court.
  • The driver is not positively identified by the camera, so the default is to charge the vehicle's registered owner with the violation. The owner, who may not have been the driver, is presumed guilty. A bedrock principle of our justice system—a defendant is innocent until proven guilty—is unceremoniously jettisoned.
  • The chain of custody of photo evidence is murky at best, shifting electronically between the camera vendor and the local police department before a ticket is issued. Yet rarely is a representative of the red-light camera company made available to testify in court as to the gathering, handling, or interpretation of the evidence. Several appellate courts in California have thrown out lower court ticket camera convictions on the basis that the photo evidence was hearsay. The rulings noted that there were no witnesses in court to testify about that evidence.

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In the states that continue to permit photo enforcement, there have been 24 local elections since 1991 that presented voters with the choice to keep or eliminate the cameras. In all but one instance, ticket camera programs were defeated.

The one exception occurred last November, when the voters of East Cleveland, Ohio, narrowly approved the retention of red-light cameras. The mayor forewarned his constituents that the elimination of the cameras—more specifically, the camera revenue—would force the city to fire dozens of police officers and firefighters. It is not hard to imagine that East Cleveland voters felt coerced into keeping the ticket cameras.

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Red-light cameras are a money-making enterprise for the cities that deploy them and for the camera vendors that build their business profitability around the ticketing machines. Proponents claim that cameras improve intersection safety by deterring red-light running and by ticketing rolling-right-turn-on-red drivers. Yet numerous studies, including an investigative report by the Washington Post, have shown accident rates increasing by double-digit percentages after the introduction of cameras.

Red-light cameras do not improve intersection safety, they degrade it. If the cameras significantly reduced infractions, they would eventually vanish from the landscape. But cameras only disappear when they aren't making a profit. A recent example is the demise of the Los Angeles red-light camera program. Another is the elimination of red-light cameras by several North Carolina cities in the mid to late 2000s after a higher court ruled that 90 percent of ticket camera revenue in the state had to be applied to public education programs.

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If traffic safety is the true goal, increase the yellow-light duration at problem intersections by one second. Several cities have done just that, including Loma Linda, Calif., which realized an immediate and lasting 92 percent reduction in red-light offenses.

Banning red-light cameras nationwide will allow motorists to regain the due process rights afforded all citizens, and will punctuate the conclusion that ticket cameras are about revenue, not safety.