Caught! Big Brother May Be Watching You With Traffic Cameras

Maybe you've seen them in the vicinity of traffic signals. Those insidious cameras that stand ready to catch your transgressions on film, unbeknownst to you until that fateful day you receive a citation in the mail, accompanied by a photo of you blatantly disregarding the law as you cruise through a red light.

Red light cameras are meant to act as a much needed deterrent from running red lights. Motorists are more likely to be injured in crashes involving red light running than in other types of crashes. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), in 2007, almost 900 were killed and nearly 153,000 were injured in crashes that involved red light running. About half of the deaths are pedestrians and occupants in other vehicles who are hit by the red light runners. The IIHS has reported huge decreases in red light running in several cities in which the cameras were used.

As a result, traffic cameras are becoming increasingly common at America's intersections. As of April 2009, 25 states and the District of Columbia have installed them. The cameras are designed to snap photos of vehicles that enter an intersection after the light has turned red. Trained law enforcement officers review the photos before issuing tickets to make sure that a traffic violation did indeed occur. The idea is to catch motorists who intentionally run red lights, not people who get stuck in traffic and are caught in the intersection when the light changes, or people who cross the line while the light is still yellow. In states like New York, where the citation is treated like a parking ticket, the car's registered owner is automatically fined. In California the citation is considered a moving violation, which means you could get a point on your license and your insurance bill could rise for up to three years.

Some red light cameras photograph only a vehicle's rear license plate, while others record the driver's face as well as the front plate. In some states, the driver can dispute the citation if someone else was driving the car at the time of the infraction, in which case the photo itself comes in as handy evidence. The "How Stuff Works" Web site offers an excellent explanation of the technical details of red light cameras.

Drivers often ask about the constitutionality of the cameras — aren't they violating our privacy by taking our picture without our knowledge? Not technically. Driving is a regulated activity on public roads. By obtaining a license, drivers agree to abide by the law, which contains nothing to prevent local governments from observing and documenting violators. However, each locality must authorize the use of red light cameras and allow citations to be sent by mail.

What has created more controversy is the cost of implementing these cameras and the revenue they generate for their city. The approximate cost of a red light camera with installation and sensors is $100,000. For that reason, they have begun appearing primarily in wealthier cities. The cost for a ticket issued for running one of these camera-equipped lights can be as much as $370. If you are photographed running a red light, it is not impossible to argue your way out of it, but many people aren't aware of the ways to fight it. There are books and web sites that can show you how to beat these tickets. But overall, plenty of motorists feel these cameras aren't being installed to protect the public so much as to generate millions of dollars for the city.

Here's an example of why people have this negative perception of the cameras. According to an article appearing in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the city of Lilburn, GA issued about 1,500 citations in January 2008. The citations dropped by 80 percent to around 300 in January 2009, after a new Georgia law mandated a longer yellow light duration. The extra second on the yellow light may have reduced the problem of red light running for the driver, but it almost worked too well for the city. Red light cameras were no longer issuing enough citations to keep them "profitable" and as a result, Lilburn and four other cities in the same county suspended their red light programs.

There are also circumstances in which a traffic camera will generate a ticket for an infraction that a police officer might let slide or not see at all. For example, if traffic comes to a stop while a driver is still in the intersection, the gridlock prevents him from moving and the light will turn red. This might not be cause for a ticket if an officer saw it happen, because the driver wasn't trying to run the red light. A camera, on the other hand, has no reasoning ability. There have also been numerous cases of cameras issuing citations for a red light violation that happened within a fraction of a second. This can be infuriating if you're the one paying $370.

In response to this controversy, states are enacting statutes such as California's Red Light Reform Bill, which became a law in 2004. This law prohibits vendors of red light cameras from being paid based on the number of citations issued. But grandfather clauses, legal loopholes and other problems with this law, work against consumers' interests as well. (See for more.)

Finally, even the safety aspect of red light cameras has come into question. In San Diego, camera vendor Lockheed Martin IMS, placed some of the cameras too close to the intersection and reduced the yellow light time. Red light cameras have also been known to cause some rear-end collisions, as drivers may slam on their brakes well short of the intersection when they notice a camera.

Consumers are also fighting back by using reflective coating sprays on their license plates. While it doesn't prevent a police officer from reading the plate, reflective coatings foil both radar guns and red light cameras. Whether this technique is legal or not depends on your state's laws.

The Automobile Club recommends that cities installing red light cameras (or any photo traffic enforcement) abide by the following guidelines:

  • Use the cameras to increase effectiveness of on-site police officers, not to replace them.
  • Ensure that cameras are reliable and accurate.
  • Install cameras only at high-risk locations to improve safety, not generate revenue.
  • Focus the technology on preventing the crime, not punishing it. Motorists should receive adequate notice that the red light cameras will be installed.
  • Time the signal intervals fairly, according to accepted engineering and safety principles.

Despite the ongoing controversy, there is still widespread public support for traffic cameras. No one wants to get caught running a red light, but it is a dangerous traffic violation. Red light cameras may be a little Big-Brotherish, but when used properly, can be a deterrent from potentially fatal driving behavior.

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