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Study Finds Problems with Red-Light, Speed Cameras

Safeguards needed to protect drivers and municipalities

A new research report outlines problems with the growing trend among cities to outsource traffic enforcement to red-light and speed camera vendors.

“Too many cities wrongly sign away power to ensure the safety of citizens on the roads when they privatize traffic law enforcement. Automated traffic ticketing tends to be governed by contracts that focus more on profits than safety.” said Phineas Baxandall Ph.D., the Senior Analyst for Tax and Budget Policy at the Public Interest Research Group and a co-author of the report.

“That shouldn’t happen,” Baxandall added.

The report finds that approximately half of all states allow the use of automated traffic law enforcement.  Municipalities in these states contract with private companies to operate cameras and issue citations to drivers.

Citizens often object to privatized forms of traffic enforcement and many municipalities have found themselves in legal trouble when they attempt to change or update these contracts.

Traffic engineering alternatives, such as lengthening yellow lights, are often the best way to reduce injuries from red-light running. However, those solutions often get ignored because of the focus on increasing revenue from tickets.

The nationwide policy study finds that 1-in-5 Americans live in jurisdictions with traffic camera ticketing contracts. It describes which kind of contracts are most problematic for the public: those that create a direct financial incentive to issue more tickets and create penalties that limit the public’s ability to lengthen yellow light intervals or other alternative ways to promote traffic safety.

California profits

California is one state that has seen over a hundred cities contracting for automated traffic enforcement and often running into lawsuits and other scandals.

“I believe traffic tickets should be only issued to improve public safety, not to raise revenue. Regrettably, that’s not what happens in some jurisdictions," said California state senator Joe Simitian. "In too many cases, issues of accuracy, privacy, and due process are taking a back seat to the profit motive.  I think we can keep folks safe and still give the driving public a fair shake.” 

Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association, called the repoprt “a must-read for city administrators in municipalities considering the addition of red light cameras, for authorities in communities that already have ticket cameras, and for motorists who are subjected to the privatized, for-profit automated traffic enforcement scheme known as red light cameras.”

5 steps

The report recommends stronger guidelines to ensure that automated traffic enforcement programs focus on improving road safety, rather than ticket revenue.  Deals between local governments and traffic camera vendors should:

• Put public safety first in decisions regarding enforcement of traffic laws – this includes evaluating privatized law enforcement camera systems against alternative options without regard to potential revenues.

• Ensure that contract language is free from potential conflicts of interest.

• Avoid direct or indirect incentives for vendors that are based on the volume of tickets or fines.

• Retain public control over traffic policy and engineering decisions, including cancelling contracts if the public is dissatisfied.

• Ensure that the process of contracting with vendors is completely open, with ample opportunity for public participation and each ticket listing where to find online data about automated ticketing for each intersection.

“Some states have a real mess with their red-light camera programs. Other states are now wading into the waters. We’d like to see states that already have camera programs reform them and states considering programs learn from the mistakes of others,” said Ryan Pierannunzi, an associate with U.S. PIRG.

The report is available online

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