Across the world, the rise of red-light and speeding cameras is causing a head-on collision between those who think we should slam the breaks on these surveillance systems and others who want to green light the initiative in even more cities. Having trouble following the debate? Here are five stories on the front lines of traffic camera politics.
1. Rear-end ruckus
The main argument in favor of the cameras is that they keep the roads safer, reducing intersection crashes and other type of dangerous driving. But at least one study suggests that the harm reduction argument isn’t so clear cut. In New Jersey, the Department of Transportation has acknowledged that, although right-angle crashes at monitored intersections are down, the total number of collisions has increased by 0.9 percent in areas where the cameras are installed. Much of this increase is caused by the skyrocketing number of rear-end collisions, which have increased by 20 percent as drivers slam the breaks to avoid getting caught cruising through a yellow light.
“What we are doing is making people paranoid — causing them to slam on the brakes at the slightest hint a light might change, or deciding to fail to make even an absolutely safe right turn on red,” complained one New Jersey assemblyman, Declan O’Scanlon.
2. Ballot bans
Although the long-term safety benefits are still being tested, motorists across the country are flocking to their ballot boxes in attempts to ban the cameras. This month, voters in California, New Jersey, Texas and Washington state all voted to end the camera programs and the automatic tickets that come with it. In League City, Texas, more than three-quarters of voters opposed the program, while in Monroe, Washington, 70% of voters demanded the cameras be taken down. Much of the opposition came from conservative or Tea Party candidates, who launched grassroots camera-opposition campaigns that managed to beat out the big money of the monitoring companies. Since 1991, there have been ballot votes about the speed and/or red-light camera programs in 30 districts--and in only three contests did the monitoring systems prevail.
Cities cashing in
The main reason that motorists oppose the cameras is that they often come with expensive tickets that are automatically mailed to offending drivers. To cash-strapped city governments, however, these additional revenues are exactly what the budget calls for. In the District of Columbia, for example, the city is cashing in on the program, increasing the traffic violation revenue by more than 400 percent. In October, the city netted $350,000 in fines, more than four times the measly $65,000 it gained during this month last year, before the cameras were installed.
Meanwhile, while the camera’s are catching everyday motorists in expensive traffic violations, at least one city has figured out how to rig the system in favor of its own government employees. In New Orleans, at least one traffic court judge was caught driving a special, city-issued car that featured a plastic reflective cover over the license plate that obscured the plate’s information from a traffic camera’s eye.
“It’s outrageous and unacceptable conduct for anyone, particularly a judge in traffic court,” Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, told a local news station. “The height of hypocrisy. Deplorable conduct for a court that’s been under intense scrutiny.”
City governments aren’t the only ones that stand to profit from the new system. Unsurprisingly, the surveillance companies that make the cameras have been enjoying generous proceeds from the program--and they may be using their power to manipulate the road rules for their own gain.
The surveillance and weapons manufacturing companies like Lockheed Martin, which is one of the largest producers of the traffic light cameras, get paid for their devices when they catch motorists in a violation. In California, for example, Lockheed Martin receives $70 per every $271 red-light violation ticket issued, according to the National Association of Motorists.
As a result, Lockheed Martin is incentivized to increase overall traffic violations, which is exactly the opposite of the camera program’s stated goal of making the roads safer. Using the company’s considerable lobbying power, it has won clauses in the city contracts that, according to the National Association of Motorists’ communication director Eric Skrum, “prohibit city engineers from applying engineering practices that improve compliance and reduce accidents, apparently to maintain the flow of ticket camera revenue. Lockheed Martin specifically prohibits cities, such as San Diego, California, from changing the timing of yellow lights in intersections that host their cameras, even though increasing the yellow light time has proven to dramatically decrease red light violations.”
In other words, forget about better traffic planning initiatives in the U.S., because making sure that motorists run red lights is now part of Lockheed Martin’s business strategy.
5. International incidents
Traffic cameras aren’t causing controversy in the U.S., they are also under attack in other countries. In Malaysia, for example, the government is under intense criticism for handing the camera contracts off to two private companies that have close ties to the government itself. In Abu Dabai, meanwhile, speed cameras are so despised that they are frequently the targets of vandalism. The private company that developed the cameras is now scrambling to install protective cases to prevent future defacement.
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