Monday, January 14, 2008

Profitable "Photo Cop" programs leave some seeing red

Mounted cameras that identify and ticket drivers that run red lights could offer revenue and safety benefits to Wisconsin cities – but legislators should consider the sometimes-negative outcomes that have taken place in other cities before green-lighting such a program.

A bill in the Wisconsin state legislature could open the door to a program some cities have nicknamed “Photo Cop.” If passed, Wisconsin municipalities could join the over-100 other U.S. cities that use cameras mounted on stoplights at key intersections to identify cars running red lights. Presuming that the driver of the car is also the owner, violators would get tickets in the mail. Car owners do not have to pay the ticket if they can prove after the fact that someone else was driving the car. While this system has benefits, other cities like Minneapolis have seen a spiraling series of problems stemming from their “Stop on Red” program.

In Minneapolis, the 12-camera program quickly began bringing in more revenue than initially intended from the $142 tickets. Among the monitored intersections, crashes dropped 16 percent after cameras were installed, versus a five percent drop city-wide.

Embarrassing information came out in the press that 14 Minneapolis police squad cars had been identified as running red lights in non-emergency situations. Some citizens had problems too – one video record shows a blue car running a light near a stopped red car, but the red car’s driver got the ticket in his mailbox and had to institute a lengthy fight to get out of paying it. (Similar tale here.)

Then the ACLU got involved, arguing that the program violates drivers’ constitutional rights and considers them guilty until proven innocent. In the resultant court case, the judge agreed that, while there is always authority to ticket drivers for violations, there was no authority to ticket the car owners, who may or may not have been driving the car at the time of the violation. After eight months of operation, 26,000 tickets, and more than a million dollars in revenue, the Minneapolis Stop on Red program was put on hold until appeals could be decided by a higher court. The cameras were officially shut down in April after a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling.

San Diego’s similar program hit scandal resulting in 150 separate lawsuits when it was alleged that Lockheed, which received a cut of every ticket for administering the cameras, had tinkered with the traffic lights without the city’s knowledge in order to shorten the yellow light time and drive up the number of tickets. A similar 2004 class-action lawsuit in Baltimore also claimed that yellow lights were unusually short at intersections with cameras.

While many cities found accident reductions with the cameras, a number of others found that the cameras sparked a significant increase in accident rates, presumably from drivers that slam on the brakes when they notice the cameras. Washington D.C.’s program generated $32 million in fines over six years from 500,000 tickets. An inquiry found that the rate of accidents at intersections with cameras increased after the camera was installed. The increased accidents were at the same rate or worse than at the 1,520 city intersections with traffic lights but no cameras. Critics claim that, while red light programs are flush with rhetoric about safety, such programs are more concerned with generating revenue.

At this point, no organization has registered to lobby against the bill in Wisconsin, but the Department of Transportation opposes it, predicting it will drive up the agency’s expenses.
Some elements to consider about the bill in the Wisconsin legislature:
  • New sources of local government revenue are increasingly needed, especially given the public's anxiety about high property taxes.

  • How do we know the program will increase safety? While cameras have reduced accidents in some cities, they appear to have increased accidents in others.

  • Will the program be susceptible to lawsuits similar to the ACLU concerns in Minneapolis? How can we shape a program that does not have the same vulnerabilities?

  • Will citizens be adequately protected from incorrect accusations? Will the system to dispute tickets be simple and streamlined for the wrongly accused, or overly burdensome? To what extent are drivers “guilty until proven innocent”?

As legislators weigh the potential positives and negatives of red-light camera programs, one hopes that they can see through the dollar signs to create a policy that, if passed, preserves safety and justice while generating revenue.

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