Truth About Red Light Cameras
Majority Leader Dick Armey
July 20, 2001
50 cities across the country now use cameras at intersections to catch
"red light runners." Even more communities are laying the groundwork to
install these devices on their streets in the near future.
It makes you wonder why the devices seem to be so attractive. If you
listen to local politicians, you'll hear of the significant safety
benefit provided to the community, and you'll hear indignation at any
suggestion that profit is their true motive.
Newly uncovered documents from red light
camera programs in California and Arizona suggest otherwise. The camera
lobby has been hiding the truth about how intersections are being left
deliberately mistimed-a dangerous condition-for the sake of profit.
And the public is being deceived.
Two attorneys representing 290 motorists in San Diego, California have
taken on this system-and won. Arthur F. Tait and Coleen Cusak forced
the city to pull the plug on all nineteen red light cameras after they
uncovered evidence that the camera hardware was being manipulated to
Their lawsuit also forced the private company that operates the cameras
to release over 5,000 pages of confidential documents about the
program. These papers describe what the real motivating factor behind
these cameras has been.
Safety was never the primary consideration. In fact, none of the
devices were placed at any of San Diego's top-ten most dangerous
intersections. Instead, the documents tell us how the camera operators
consciously sought out mistimed intersections as locations for new red
Yellow signal time at intersections turns out to be directly
related to "red light running." Simply put, when the yellow light is
short, more people enter on red.
Inadequate yellow time causes a condition where individuals approaching
an intersection are unable either to come to a safe stop or proceed
safely before the light turns red.
Though dangerous, this condition also turns out to be very profitable.
Each time someone ends up in an intersection on red
in San Diego, the city collects $271. And $70 of that fine is paid as
bounty to the city's private contractor. Combine hefty fines with
mistimed signals and you've found the formula for big money. A single
camera brought the city $6.8 million in just 18 months.
My office has produced a report
that suggests several cities nationwide purposely ignored proven
engineering solutions to intersection accidents in favor of this big
money formula. The newly released documents show exactly how this could
Consider the intersection of Mission Bay Drive and Grand Avenue in
San Diego. With a yellow time of 3 seconds, the intersection produced
about 2,300 violations every month.
Documents show that the yellow time was increased to 4.7 seconds at
that particular intersection on July 28, 2000. Immediately after the
change, red light entries dropped 90 percent -- and they stayed
The simple and inexpensive step of adding a little over a second to the
yellow time produced a significant safety benefit. Did the city tell
the world of its success? Did the city refocus its efforts to correct
signal timing at other intersections? No. That's because this "success"
cost the City of San Diego $3 million in yearly revenue it would have
otherwise collected from the mistimed signal.
entries similarly dropped about 70 percent in Mesa, Arizona after the
city increased yellow times at its intersections in response to
motorist complaints. The problem subsided so dramatically that their
camera program turned into a big money loser. The incredible truth
about Mesa, however, is that the city had to break its contract with
the camera operators to achieve this safety benefit.
Inadequate yellows are more dangerous, but they are also more
profitable. It's hard to conceive another explanation for a contract
that prevents engineering safety measures that could dilute profits.
Given this new information, it's time to demand accountability. Signal
times should be set according to what produces the most safety. They
should not be set to a level that assures a steady stream of profit.
Motorists should not be put at risk so local bureaucrats, private
vendors and insurance companies can line their pockets.
Cities should be encouraged to use the engineering standards in place
before cameras corrupted the system. Red light
camera revenue dries up when the intersections are not rigged against
the motorist. And when the revenue goes away, so does the true
motivation for Big Brother's high-tech speed traps.
The next time you hear a politician trying to exploit the tragedy
that happens at dangerous intersections, be sure to hold on to your
wallet and smile for the camera.