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Red-light cameras are producing profits more than protecting drivers

People run a lot of red lights. According to the 2014 Traffic Safety Culture Index issued by AAA, almost all drivers agree that it’s not OK to drive through a red light if you can possibly stop safely. Yet at the same time, over 35 percent of drivers admitted that they’ve blown a red within a month of taking the survey. This kind of behavior can cause accidents.

The opportunity to save lives by preventing accidents quickly turned into a lucrative cash cow.

Preventing avoidable red-light crashes are a good reason to enforce red-light violations, but cities aren’t about to pay for a cop at every intersection. As a substitute, many have installed motion-triggered cameras to catch red-light scofflaws in the act. At first glance, the idea looks legit.

Red-light cameras are automatic (mostly) and run 24 hours a day without any human supervision. When the light turns red, the camera is on and will photograph any car that crosses the white limit line, and then transmits the photo along with the date and time to the city.  The city can then issue a citation to the owner of the car.

Sadly, the opportunity to save lives by preventing accidents has quickly turned into a lucrative cash cow of traffic fines for cities and the corporations that supply the cameras.

Counting the cost

The city of Chicago installed red-light and speeding cameras in 2003 and according to the Chicago Sun-Times, the Windy City has raked in about $600 million in fines from the automated cops. Other cities tell a similar story. Texas cities accumulated about $100 million in camera-based fines just between 2007 and 2010. In all, Texas cities have issued more than 1.2 million camera tickets.

That story has repeated in cities and towns from coast to coast. Cash-strapped municipalities listen attentively when businesses showed up and offer to install red-light cameras in exchange for a share of the revenue the cameras would generate. Free money, plus the chance to take a public stand for traffic safety? That’s an exhilirating cocktail for local politicians.

photo enforced

As of 2013, a photo speeding ticket in Baltimore costed $40, and a red-light camera ticket carried a $75 fine. About $11 of each fine was contracted to go to the camera company, leaving a profit of $29 to $64 on every ticket for the city. According to US PIRG, Suffolk County in New York gives up half its automated ticket revenue to its camera vendor.

A deal with the devil

So who are the companies that provide red-light cameras, and what do they do? Simply put, these companies invest in the hardware, and then contract with cities to install and maintain the cameras in exchange for a slice of the revenue. Competition to win city contracts is fierce. Many companies want a piece of those traffic fines.

For example, in a series of suits and counter-suits, camera provider Redflex ended up at odds with both the city of Chicago and its own former executives. After a bribery scandal with the city, Redflex fired several executives. One of the fired execs, Aaron Rosenberg, stated that the company had sent gifts and bribes to officials in at least 14 states.

Related: noPhoto license plate frame foils speeding and red-light cameras

In addition to plying local officials with sports tickets, meals, and cash, the red-light camera industry also employs traditional lobbyists to keep the streets open to their business propositions. Industry lobbyists work in the state legislatures promoting bills that allow for the privatization of traffic enforcement, and stop bills that might interfere with the legitimacy of automated private enforcement.

Changing the rules to reap more profit

The situation with automated traffic cameras might not be so bad if they were used strictly to make intersections safer. If drivers could be encouraged to be more conservative when assessing a yellow light, accidents would be reduced and the safety goals of red-light cameras would be achieved with fewer tickets.

Red-light camera providers often specify maximum yellow light times.

One proven way to reduce accidents and improve red-light compliance is to actuate the yellow light sooner and leave it on a little longer. Drivers have more time to notice and react to the yellow light, and most will stop for it. This is not news. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has been recommending this technique for decades.

However, if you’re thinking that cities with red-light camera contracts have followed the DOT’s guidelines to reduce accidents and increase compliance, think again. The contracts in place with red-light camera providers often specify maximum yellow light times, and impose financial penalties if the city lengthens the yellow period.

In fact, a 2001 report issued by the Office of the Majority Leader in the United States House of Representatives showed that the typical yellow light time had been reduced by about 25 percent compared to the times prevailing in the mid-1970s.

Giving back … a little bit

One tactic used by politicians and red light camera companies is to donate a share of the profits to a worthy cause in an attempt to “bluewash” the money. In Colorado, a bill to ban red-light cameras is working its way through the state legislature, but faces opposition from Sungatekids, an organization that fights domestic abuse. Sungatekids has stated that they stand to lose up to $500,000 in funding if the red-light cameras are removed. Digital Trends contacted Sungatekids for comment, but they did not respond.

Ticket revenue is not generously given out willingly, however. In Texas, state law requires that cities share their red-light camera profits with a state fund to pay for indigent care in hospitals. Cities have paid over $25 million into the fund to date.

Red light camera
Derek Jensen

Even so, support for red-light cameras is not limited to charities and municipalities profiting from the programs. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is a major backer. Yet as an industry-sponsored entity, the IIHS has every reason to support the use of cameras. Cameras do cut down on red-light accidents, but the tickets generated by the cameras also yield higher premiums for insurers.

According to US PIRG, some organizations supporting traffic cameras such as the National Coalition for Safer Roads are simply astroturf fronts for the traffic camera industry.  The coalition’s own website states that it is supported by camera provider American Traffic Solutions.

Here comes the judge

In most cases, an automated citation is an open-and-shut case. Traffic court judges work for the municipality that issues the tickets, and you don’t have much chance of arguing your way out of the fine. Taking your money is precisely why the municipality put the camera up and shortened the yellow light time in the first place.

But some judges around the country are calling foul. In February of 2016, a Chicago judge voided thousands of red-light camera tickets as part of a lawsuit alleging due process violations dating back to 2003.

In a 2015 ruling, a California appeals court voided a challenged ticket because the yellow light time had been shortened beyond the 3.6-second minimum. That ruling opens the door for thousands of tickets across the Golden State to be voided on similar grounds.

Related: IIHS still claiming red-light cameras make us safer despite evidence to the contrary

Legal action in 2015 led the Missouri Supreme Court to strike down legislation allowing red-light cameras in that state, leading some cities to issue refunds to previously fined drivers. And in Ohio, a new state law signed by Gov. John Kasich at the end of 2014 effectively outlaws the use of red-light cameras in that state.

Breaking up is hard on the wallet

According to Governing magazine, a total of 540 cities and towns across the United States were using red-light cameras in 2012. By 2015, that number was down to 503 municipalities and dropping. But when a city decides that the revenue from red-light cameras is no longer worth the political cost from outraged citizens, they often find that the contracts they signed contain expensive termination clauses.

Free money, plus the chance to take a public stand for traffic safety, is a heady cocktail for local politicians.

Also according to Governing magazine, the city of Baltimore paid its traffic camera operator $600,000 in early termination fees in 2013 after the Baltimore Sun newspaper ran an exposé on the inaccuracy of the automated systems.

Baltimore got off easy compared to some other towns. US PIRG reports that Houston was threatened with a $25 million bill from its vendor for early termination, and San Bernardino was threatened with a $1.8 million bill. The same report states that the Houston suburb of Baytown, Texas had to pay $1 million to get rid of its cameras.

What can you do?

The best defense against traffic cameras is to stop them before they come to your town. Do the homework and educate your local elected officials on the pitfalls of outsourcing traffic enforcement. It’s always good to have a positive alternative to suggest, such as following the DOT guidelines on yellow light intervals.

If red-light cameras are already in place, you can ask your local officials to lengthen yellow light times to DOT standards, and you can publicize judicial rulings concerning the enforceability of automated tickets through your local media. And of course, you can vote for candidates committed to eliminating the practice of privatizing law enforcement for profit.