Red-Light Camera Backlash
Safety Devices, or Cash Cows for Cities and Vendors?
James Mengucci doesn't deny rolling through a red light while turning right at an intersection outside Pohatcong Township, New Jersey, on his way to church one Sunday morning in October.
Mengucci, a school district facilities director and longtime councilman in neighboring Lopacong Township, even agrees he deserves the $85 ticket.
What he objects to — and boy, does he object — is the red-light camera system at the intersection that caught his traffic infraction the instant it happened. The very fact that it's there strikes him as a revenue grab by the township since it's at an intersection that he maintains hasn't been a safety issue in all the years he's lived in the area.
"It's a rip-off," he says.
On top of that, the ticket wasn't mailed to him until almost six weeks after the fact. During roughly the same period, Mengucci says his sister and one of his employees got red-light camera tickets for rolling right turns at the same intersection. A friend got three such tickets.
"If the ticket was given to you in a week or less, you would know to slow down," he says.
Lights, Cameras, Backlash
Welcome to red-light camera backlash. Experiences — and outrage — like Mengucci's are increasingly commonplace now that hundreds of cities and towns across the country have installed high-tech camera systems to catch people rolling through right turns or speeding into intersections on a light that's already turned red.
Red-light cameras have been around for two decades, but traffic safety experts and consumer advocates agree that they've proliferated in the past few years. What they don't agree on is why.
Close to 700 local governments and about half of all states have red-light cameras, according to an October report from U.S. PIRG, a federation of state public interest research groups. Government traffic safety officials maintain that municipalities are adopting these automated traffic enforcement systems because of improved digital imaging and other technological innovations. They also say that the cameras, which 99.99 percent of government entities have contracted with private companies to install and run, have been proven to reduce accidents and fatalities caused by red-light runners.
But consumer advocates, motorists' rights groups and anti-camera citizen coalitions blame the uptick in red-light cameras on economic hard times that have forced state and local governments to search for additional revenue sources without raising taxes. Opponents also blame the increase on hard-sell — and sometimes covert — lobbying efforts by deep-pocketed vendors who, they say, are thinking more about money than safety.
Fed-up drivers have started dozens of anti-red-light-camera Web sites and Facebook pages with names such as BanTheCams.org, CameraFraud.com and HighwayRobbery.net. The backlash has spawned a cottage industry of books, GPS add-ons and license-plate shields and sprays that purportedly help motorists circumvent being caught by red-light cameras. Other services have sprung up to help drivers fight red-light tickets to the tune of tens or hundreds of dollars a pop.
In recent months, the backlash has moved beyond drivers, as a small but growing number of cities opt out of using the outsourced traffic safety equipment. Officials in Syracuse, New York, for example, decided not to install a system after tests showed the area had too few serious injuries or traffic-related deaths to warrant the expense. In 2011, cities such as Albuquerque and Los Angeles elected not to renew expiring contracts. In the fall of 2011, voters in more than half a dozen smaller cities in Washington, Ohio and Texas passed ballot initiatives to get rid of existing cameras. In some cases, however, the votes were only advisory and the ultimate decision to keep or toss cameras will be made by city officials.
Red-light camera companies are fighting back, filing multimillion-dollar lawsuits against Houston and other cities that pulled out of contracts before they expired. In some areas, the companies have launched so-called "astroturf" organizations: lobby groups that appear to be independent but are actually funded by the camera vendors.
For Safety's Sake?
No one questions the need for better safety measures at intersections. Almost half of all car crashes that cause injuries happen at intersections, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's 2009 Traffic Safety Facts report, which is the latest available data. Drivers who run red lights are responsible for about 2 percent of all fatal accidents a year. In 2009, that number equaled 676 fatalities, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
There's also little disagreement that red-light cameras work. One example of research supporting that assertion is a June 2011 report by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. It found that cameras at 275 state intersections they studied were effective in reducing crashes.
However, even red-light camera systems' proponents agree that the equipment is best used in conjunction with other traffic safety measures. Those precautions include engineering studies to improve intersections, making red lights bigger or brighter, clearing intersections of tree branches that could obstruct signals, improved signage and driver-awareness campaigns.
Some researchers and consumer groups maintain that one of the most effective ways to curb red-light running and improve intersection safety is extending yellow lights so drivers have an extra second or half-second to react before a light turns red. That change has proven to be effective, according to multiple traffic-safety research studies. But lengthening yellow-light times isn't an option for some cities whose contracts with camera operators specifically bar them from making those or other changes that could effectively reduce the number of infractions, and therefore, tickets.
Critics argue that cash-strapped cities are jumping straight to using red-light cameras before trying other options. They also maintain that cities and towns are entering into ill-conceived contracts with vendors such as American Traffic Solutions and Redflex Traffic Systems because they lack the personnel or experience to properly negotiate the agreements.
"We were surprised about how little information there was about the contracting and what would be good practice for contracting," says Phineas Baxandall, a U.S. PIRG senior analyst and program director, and co-author of the group's red-light camera study.
The Governors Highway Safety Association, a nonprofit that represents state highway safety offices, and other government agencies are trying to rectify that situation by offering resources to cities that are considering signing red-light camera contracts.
The association's executive director, Barbara Harsha, denies that state and local governments are starting programs as a source of revenue, or that they're being improperly swayed by vendors' lobbyists. If they're putting a red-light camera at an intersection to make money, it's self defeating, "because the public won't support it," she says.
"I think we share [critics'] concerns," Harsha says, "but it doesn't mean that it's bad technology."
The critics, however, say that if cities and states were really concerned about safety and not just making money, they wouldn't be so quick to drop red-light cameras when the devices stop bringing in revenue or, as has been the case in some areas, begin losing money.
"What that points out is the motivation for these programs is money, not safety," says John Bowman, communications director for the National Motorists Association, a Waunakee, Wisconsin, driver's rights group. "If the goal were public safety, they'd find a way to fund them."
It remains to be seen what long-term effects the red-light camera backlash will have. Both sides are watching to see if the number of cities opting not to install the equipment and those voting to remove existing systems eventually will balance out the municipalities signing new contracts.
Meanwhile, back in New Jersey, Councilman Mengucci is still steamed over his red-light camera run-in. He says it didn't help that the Pohatcong Township police chief told him afterward that in the system's first two months in operation, the department issued 2,500 tickets at the intersection.
After Mengucci shared his story at a city council meeting and on the local news, he heard from other area residents who had been dinged with multiple tickets at the same intersection, whose four corners are home to a cemetery, car dealer, appliance store and bank.
One caller, whose father died recently, described heading to the cemetery in the funeral procession. Even though on-duty motorcycle officers waved the cars through the red light, multiple drivers got camera-based tickets. "It's ridiculous that it would even occur," Mengucci says.
Pohatcong Township is testing the red-light camera in the intersection as part of a statewide pilot project, he says. Lopacong Township, a nearby town of 8,500 where Mengucci has been a councilman for 14 years, has yet to petition to join the pilot. If they do, he'll vote no.