Red Light Cameras Working Exactly as Intended: They’re Making Money.

Monday, December 6th, 2010

Nashville’s News Channel 5 posts this headline:

Red Light Cameras Cut Down on Crashes

It’s referring to an article in the Clarksville Leaf Chronicle with this headline:

Red light cameras working in Clarksville, police chief says

But look at the actual numbers and it’s not at all clear that the cameras are “working,” at least if you believe “working” to mean “making the roads safer.” What’s clear is that local authorities want to give the impression that the cameras are preventing accidents, even if the numbers don’t bear that out. The police chief focuses on side-impact collisions, which fell from 72 in 2008 to 64 in 2009 after the cameras were installed. That’s a modest drop, and it wasn’t consistent across the city. For example, one intersection had four side-impact collisions in 2008, five in 2009, and has seen 11 already this year.

In fact, overall collisions are up at the intersections where Clarksville has installed red light cameras (a result we’ve seen nearly everywhere they’ve been installed). The city just chooses to ignore rear-impact collisions when evaluating the cameras. Those collisions increased from 138 in 2008, to 173 in 2009, to 169 through October of this year. It’s true that side-impact collisions are generally more dangerous than rear-impact collisions. But even taking that into consideration, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that a decrease of eight side-impact collisions coupled with an increase of 25 rear-impact collisions shows that the cameras are preventing accidents.

But there is one way that the cameras are working out quite well:

Clarksville’s red light camera program has already issued more than 10,000 tickets, bringing in about $1 million in revenue.

Interestingly, about $600,000 of that revenue goes to Redflex Traffic Systems, Inc., the company that manufactures and operates the cameras. And how’s this for a display of twisted incentives:

Buoyed by the program’s early results, police plan to expand the program to two other intersections, Highway 76-Interstate 24 and Fort Campbell Boulevard-Lafayette Road. Both are in the top 10 in number of accidents.

Ansley said they have to wait for Redflex’s approval, because any new intersections would have to be profitable for the company to cover the cost of the cameras.

So Redflex gets to dictate where the cameras go. Which means that if the cameras really are effective at preventing accidents and red light runners, as the intersections get safer, Redflex’s profit margins (and city revenues) get thinner. If I were a Redflex executive, I’d put the cameras at intersections where there’s lots of red-light running, but where cameras aren’t likely to be very effective at preventing it.

The best approach doesn’t bring in any revenue, for camera makers or city governments: Lengthening the duration yellow lights has proven to be much more effective at preventing accidents than cameras. Which of course is why several cities have been caught making intersections more dangerous by shortening yellow lights in order to generate more tickets.

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33 Responses to “Red Light Cameras Working Exactly as Intended: They’re Making Money.”

  1. #1 |  K9kevlar | 

    If only the citizens would learn to obey.

  2. #2 |  Mike Leatherwood | 

    At least Houstonians are trying to ditch the cameras in their city. Some sanity prevails in the populace.

  3. #3 |  nando | 

    I have no issue with what Redflex is doing. They’re a private company exploiting a situation to make a profit.

    My beef lies with those who are entrusted with making sure the roads remain safe. By going with the cameras, they are actually selling out the public’s safety for cash. That makes them PIMPS!

  4. #4 |  Politically.Speaking | 

    I like the idea of red light cameras. One would hope that folks would catch the hint that the folks in front of them are going to actually stop at red lights, so that eventually rear-end collisions would decrease (but maybe I am being too pollyanish).

    What I don’t like is the privatization of police actions. To the best of my knowledge, here in Raleigh, NC the vendors of the red light camera systems do not get paid based on the number of offenders, but on simply installing and maintaining the systems.

    When we allow vendors to profit from offenses, then the vendor has incentives to generate those offenses. One red light camera system vendor moved a sensor 20-30 feet further from the intersection, guaranteeing more cars would get photographed and increasing their revenue. That is just wrong.

  5. #5 |  Radley Balko | 

    When we allow vendors to profit from offenses, then the vendor has incentives to generate those offenses.

    Why wouldn’t local governments operate under the same premise? Indeed, the yellow-shortening stories seem to indicate that they do.

  6. #6 |  Brandon | 

    #4, I know it’s convenient for your semblance of an argument, but you completely ignore the fact that the government is doing the exact same thing. Generating more offenses to increase revenue. Why do you only have a problem with it when it is a private company?

  7. #7 |  Shadowguv | 

    We experienced similar results in Houston; increased collisions at the intersections with red light cameras. These poor results were dismissed as positive, with officials claiming that the “rate of increase” of collisions was slowed by these cameras. Hogwash of course.

    A few notes:

    These “tickets” may be called “tickets” or “citations” but they are actually considered a civil matter, as per the Clarksville, TN City Ordinance Chapter 2. Section 9-232:

    “A violation for which a civil penalty is imposed under this section shall not be considered a moving violation and may not be recorded by the police department or the state department of safety on the driving record of the owner or driver of the vehicle and may not be considered in the provision of motor vehicle insurance coverage.”

    AND THIS

    “The city may establish procedures for the collection of civil penalties, court costs, and fees, consistent with general law, and may enforce the collection of same by a civil action in the nature of a debt.”

    The violators receive a “notice of violation”, are not charged with any criminal act, and thus have no due process to dispute the allegation. Why else would the code call it a non moving violation and ban the Police and DPS from recording the violation? Because it’s not a ticket!

    In Texas, state law expressly prohibits the municipality issuing such notices from communicating any civil judgment to a credit bureau. The only potential penalty that could be enforced was a barrier to vehicle registration at renewal. The counties, which are the entities responsible for processing registrations refused to play along and will gladly renew vehicle registrations with comment.

    Now the local PD could post an Officer or two at these intersections and use the RLC pics as supplemental evidence, proving a violation. The fine for this dangerous act could be say $1,000. A nice deterrent indeed. One which would quickly shape driver behavior. But the cash flow is awfully nice. Too nice to give up without a fight.

    Shadwguv
    Houston, TX

  8. #8 |  John P. | 

    There is also a concern that the money going to the private company, the cameras being operated, installed, tested and serviced by non-police personnel as well… violate the State Constitution regarding the prohibition of private companies engaging in law enforcement functions not specifically authorized under the citizens arrest laws.

    These are nothing more than revenue generators, they have absolutely zero to do with public safety.

  9. #9 |  Nick T | 

    The fact that the private company gets MOST of the revenue generated by their cameras means there has to be some sort of corruption going on. Surely some politician or official is getting a piece of that $600,000. Who in their right mind would agree to such a thing?

  10. #10 |  sux2bme | 

    There’s an app for that, http://www.trapster.com … or you can go incognito like I do by wearing by full-face motorcycle helmet with dark tint visor both on the bike and in the car when I’m traveling through high density revenue enhancement zones.

  11. #11 |  Highway | 

    The governments agree to it because they’re essentially getting ‘free’ money: It’s catching violations that are happening, and they get money from it, while someone else puts the cameras up and administers them.

    And the camera vendors have no power to change signal timing without the complicity of government. The vendors aren’t making those changes to increase revenue (and decrease safety) – the localities are. The entire question of whether they’re making those intersections unsafe rests with them. Maybe Redflex or ATS are recommending the timings get changed, but they’re not actually changing them. And any DoT or Public Works official who says different is a straight up liar.

    I hate to be defending Redflex or ATS, because they’re both loathsome companies. But they’re being abetted by these greedy governments, who want the revenue, and continue to lie about the effectiveness and their own complicity in actually increasing accidents and reducing safety.

  12. #12 |  jb | 

    #7,
    It’s distance from the act. If we can vote in a referendum on a law we don’t like, that’s one step. If elected officials pass a law we don’t like and we can vote them out, that’s two steps. If elected officials appoint unelected bureaucrats and the bureaucrats do something we don’t like, we can vote out the elected officials and hope the next crop appoint better ones, that’s three steps. But if elected officials sign a contract with a completely unaccountable private company that we don’t like…then it gets harder and harder to draw a direct connection between us not liking what our government is doing and our votes.

  13. #13 |  PW | 

    The only proper way to deal with these automated theft machines:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z71n_kD-LUE

  14. #14 |  BSK | 

    Montgomery County, MD went so far as to admit in the newspaper that they were changing the locations of their speed cameras because they worked TOO well, appropriately slowed traffic down, and stopped issuing tickets. They took them away from high-need areas, like schools and heavy pedestrian areas, and moved them elsewhere. They admitted explicitly in the paper that it had nothing to do with safety and everything to do with revenue.

  15. #15 |  Marty | 

    In St. Louis county, the biggest salesperson of the cameras is Ron Battelle, who retired from St. Louis county police a few years ago after serving as Chief for many years. Hmmmm…

    In Hazelwood, one of the cities with cameras, they make tons of money off people not coming to a complete stop before making a right on red. this is considered the to be the least dangerous maneuver, but a huge profit maker at $100/pop. The cops review who gets tickets, so (of course) cops, politicians, friends, etc are safe.

    Tom Brown, the former mayor (and second mayor named Tom Brown) of St. Peters, was convicted and sent to prison for taking bribes from a red light camera vendor.

    People are burning speed cameras in Europe.

    A company has developed a camera that measures tire depth, so municipalities can issue tickets for this safety infraction also. To my knowledge, they haven’t sold any yet.

    The only thing safe about these things that I see, is that it’s safe to assume there’s lots of corruption surrounding them. We’re gonna see a lot more automatic tax generators in the next few years, I bet.

  16. #16 |  PW | 

    #11 – The problem with Redflex and ATS is that they expend massive amounts of money to force their unwanted product on the public. Whenever these cameras come up for a vote, just look at the money behind the “make our roads safe” PACs that spring up to promote the damn things. The money trail always leads back to these two companies.

    And when the voters reject the cameras anyway, Redflex and ATS refuse to abide by the results. So they sue the local government for “breach of contract” and to force them to keep the cameras operation.

    I’m actually beginning to think that it would not be a bad thing if a giant meteor flattened Scottsdale. Is it simply coincidence that ATS, Redflex USA, and Taser International are all located there? It’s basically the capital of corrupt and whorish law enforcement equipment suppliers.

  17. #17 |  Eric Stein | 

    For more than you’d ever want to know on the subject, check out the National Motorists Association at motorist.org

  18. #18 |  Juice | 

    Of course, some people will tout this as the free market in action.

  19. #19 |  MPH | 

    #13, PW…

    No, no, no, no… Since if you’re caught, the penalty will doubtless be heavy since the device is destroyed.

    Use a paintball gun to shoot the lens/viewing window. It’s temporary (washes off), and depending on the color it might be confused with bird crap on the window (so they might not even look for you). But if you are caught, at least it isn’t destroyed, which should result in a lighter sentence than if you had destroyed it.

  20. #20 |  Highway | 

    PW, I agree entirely that Redflex and ATS are horrible companies. I just wanted to make sure people understood that the greedy local governments are complicit in the failings of these schemes. They just let their eyes glaze over at ‘free money’ and ignore everything else, like the terrible contracts they get into with the companies, the dubious benefits, the obvious costs, and the complete loss of goodwill with the community.

    And it really makes me angry because speed and red light cameras could have been something that was used for actual safety. They could have put cameras on intersections where there were known red light running issues that were not addressable by other safety adjustments, like geometric revision. They could have put up lots of signs in advance “Red Light Camera, pay attention to lights” so that people know it’s a problem intersection. They could have not dicked around with the enforcement, like issuing 200 dollar tickets to all sorts of wrong people, like people who stop on the Stop bar but don’t go through the intersection or people who go through the right on red where there’s little conflict. They could have actually had a review process, not send tickets to the first plate match they can gin up, so a bunch of people who weren’t there didn’t get tickets. They could have had a reasonable appeals process, not one that triggers a 250 dollar ‘administrative fee’ so you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

    In short, they could have not been assholes about it. But they’re pissant little local governments, and people who want to make a lot of money in a shadily short time period. So of course they’re assholes about it.

  21. #21 |  BamBam | 

    About 7 years ago there was a yellow light shortening expose in the Phoenix New Times. Tempe, Scottsdale, Phoenix, and Chandler were all found to be problems. City engineers said “oops our bad, thanks for letting us know the timings, we’ll get on that ASAP and fix it.” I’ve found the same timing issues here in Oregon.

  22. #22 |  PW | 

    #19 – The keyword in all that, of course, being the “if.”

    Because “if” one were to, hypothetically, destroy a speed camera and “if” that same person were to get away with it, he or she would most certainly be performing a service to the public. Illegally, yes. But a service nonetheless.

  23. #23 |  InMD | 

    Personally I’m not particularly enamored of either the government’s action or the private sector’s involvement. I’d imagine everyone here agrees that the government’s installation of traffic cameras is cynical and based on revenue collection rather than safety. Personally I also find the characterization of these sorts of penalties as administrative rather than criminal thereby sidestepping constitutional safeguards to be problematic.

    Certainly the argument can be made that if there wasn’t a demand for these things from the government then there wouldn’t be companies making them. To me that argument just doesn’t fly. Private businesses share culpability when they allow themselves to become instruments of poor government policy. While there’s certainly a difference in degree of wrongdoing, at heart companies that deploy and profit from traffic cameras aren’t very different from the private companies who run prisons, provide mercenaries in war zones, employ intelligence contractors working for the national security apparatus, and the telecommunications companies who enabled warrantless wiretapping.

  24. #24 |  Mokkie | 

    Just another tax? The american taxpayer is going to stand around and let them selves be taxed into the poor house.

  25. #25 |  BSK | 

    InMD-

    What complicates the issue is that, absent such technology, cops would just sit behind bushes writing bogus tickets.

    I’ve always wondered… why can’t I request a jury trial for a driving ticket and put the burden of proof on the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that I broke the law? It’s almost assured that they can’t in most cases. So they rigged the system and set up “traffic court”, which apparently doesn’t have to play by the rules of regular courts. How did this come to be?

    Because of this, cops could sit there all day, writing tickets for unverifiable violations, like “failing to signal” and drive revenue up that way. They’re just lazy and use the technology.

  26. #26 |  Kevin3% | 

    PW @13
    that was fucking beautiful!!!!
    …and, to me, this is what needs to start happening on so many levels.

    Of course, the risk involved is great. Getting caught pulling something like that is guaranteed to get your ass slammed with some sort of “domestic terrorist” charge.

    wear gloves, leave no evidence, don’t be caught on other cams setting it all up, etc.

  27. #27 |  K9kevlar | 

    #12 jb How is that voting thing working out for you? Seems like you are simply doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results each time.

  28. #28 |  K9kevlar | 

    @25 BSK . . . where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved . . . You can request that the government honor the 7th. Hell, you can request that they honor the entire bill of rights. After all, it is a free country.

  29. #29 |  “Red light cameras working exactly as intended” | 

    […] They’re making money, even if their effect on actual road safety is ambiguous. [Radley Balko] […]

  30. #30 |  John | 

    A frequent paintball or BB gun to the camera lenses would do wonders to eliminating the Red Light Program. Just do it at night and don’t get caught.

  31. #31 |  Jane Q. | 

    re; #4| Politically.Speaking | December 6th, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    When we allow vendors to profit from offenses, then the vendor has incentives to generate those offenses. One red light camera system vendor moved a sensor 20-30 feet further from the intersection, guaranteeing more cars would get photographed and increasing their revenue.

    **Sign me up! I would like to get in on this gravy train! Where can I purchase?**

  32. #32 |  Ron Miller | 

    I love the comment about them being pimps. Why burn credibility with such vitriolic language with such metaphor that does not even work?

    This is one of those issues where it is very hard to change another person’s mind. Either you think as I do that the intrusion is harmless and accident saving or you think it is Big Brother accomplishing nothing.

  33. #33 |  The Briefcase » I’ll be watching you | 

    […] that led Radley Balko over at The Agitator to a simple observation:  “Red Light Cameras Working Exactly as Intented:  They’re […]

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