Big Brother Is Ticketing You Popular Mechanics

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Big Brother Is Ticketing You

Popular Mechanics

March 2006 issue

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds

Comics might say that the real purpose of traffic cameras is to let cops spend more time in doughnut shops. Cynics might contend that the devices are mostly intended to boost traffic-fine revenue. But cameras that photograph the license plates of cars running red lights or speeding--resulting in a citation in the car owner's mailbox--are stirring up controversy as they become more common.

First rolled out in the 1960s, stoplight cameras went digital in the 1990s. Now, these cameras are in use in over 100 communities in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Cameras aimed at catching speeders, already common in Britain and other countries, are beginning to be deployed in the United States as well. The technology is pretty simple--just a fixed camera with a sensor and a connection to the traffic signal or a radar gun. But the problems they present are much more complicated.

FACT: The technology used in automated enforcement has made phenomenal advances from where it was just a few years ago. Red light cameras have progressed from 35mm wet film cameras to extremely advanced digital and video equipment. Technicians used to have to physically remove the film from the cameras, but now the data is sent electronically to remote processing facilities. In addition, the technology now employs advanced encryption and digital watermarking features to meet the rigorous reliability standards that allow the images to be admissible as court evidence.

Some people just don't like the idea of being watched. Being monitored and punished at the behest of a law-enforcement robot sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, and not an especially cheerful science fiction movie.

Others worry about safety. Red-light cameras are supposed to make us safer by discouraging people from running red lights. The trouble is that they work too well. Numerous studies have found that when these cameras are put in place, rear-end collisions increase dramatically.

FACT: Rear-end crashes are caused by drivers who are speeding and following too closely, not because there is a red light camera present. Of the 60 significant U.S. and international studies that have researched red light cameras since 1998, only seven have questioned the benefit of red light cameras because of increases in rear-end crashes. In those studies that did document increases in rear-end crashes, they were generally small, and decreased over time as drivers adapt to the new cameras.

Drivers who once might have stretched the light a bit now slam on their brakes for fear of getting a ticket, with predictable results. A study of red-light cameras in Washington, D.C., by The Washington Post found that despite producing more than 500,000 tickets (and generating over $32 million in revenues), red-light cameras didn't reduce injuries or collisions. In fact, the number of accidents increased at the camera-equipped intersections.

FACT: The Washington Post report was conducted by two reporters, with no training in transportation statistical analysis. Their research was not based upon any accepted statistical methodology and only looked at “before and after” crash rates. They also did not make allowances for different types of crashes (like pedestrian and bicycle crashes) and did not make allowances for the significant increase in traffic volume in DC over the past five years.

Likewise, red-light cameras in Portland, Ore., produced a 140 percent increase in rear-end collisions at monitored intersections, and a study by the Virginia Transportation Research Council found that although red-light cameras decreased collisions resulting from people running traffic lights, they significantly increased accidents overall.

FACT: The Virginia study also recommended that the legislature extend the program due to the potential shown for reducing serious red light running crashes. It should also be noted that the study only included data from four of the seven Virginia jurisdictions that used red light cameras, and is continuing to be researched in order to provide a more complete report on the traffic safety impact of red light cameras. Virginia Beach, which was not included in the study, has seen violations spike almost 99 percent at the four intersections that had red light cameras since the cameras were turned off in July 2005.

This problem can be aggravated by jurisdictions that shorten the duration of yellow lights, apparently to generate more ticket revenue. Last year, CBS News reported on an especially egregious case in Maryland: A traffic-camera intersection had a 2.7-second yellow light, while nearby intersections had 4-second times. Shorter yellow lights are more dangerous--but shorter yellow lights plus traffic cameras generate revenue.

FACT: There have been no reported incidents of a community deliberately shortening their yellow light timing sequences in order to generate more violations, but the media continue to perpetuate this urban legend because of inaccurate reports in the media, like the CBS news report. Montgomery County did not change the yellow light timing at the intersection that was the subject of the report. The yellow light timing at that approach is based upon a nearby drop in the speed limit, the grade approach and an adjacent dense population center with significant pedestrian traffic. The red light camera was installed at this intersection because it had historically been a dangerous intersection for all the factors mentioned above. The nearby intersections with longer yellow light times have less traffic, and no pedestrian or grade issues. The CBS report did not mention any of these factors and used the complaint of one motorist as their source.

These kinds of revelations led UCLA law professor Stephen Bainbridge to write on his blog: "In my book, these instruments of the devil are just a tax on drivers."

FACT: Professor Bainbridge’s opinions on automated enforcement are not universally shared in his own department. UCLA constitutional law Prof. Eugene Volokh has been a strong supporter of automated enforcement.

Consider this passage from 2002–

In fact, while we should be concerned with protecting our liberty and dignity from intrusive government actions, the red light cameras are actually less intrusive than traditional traffic policing.  The law recognizes that even a brief police stop is a “seizure,” a temporary deprivation of liberty.  When I was caught on a red light camera, I avoided that.

I avoided coming even briefly within a police officer’s physical power, a power that unfortunately is sometimes abused.  I avoided the usual demeaning pressure to be especially submissive to the police officer in the hope that he might let me off the hook.  I avoided any possibility of being pulled out and frisked, or of my car being searched.  I didn’t have to wonder if I had been stopped because of my sex, race, or age.”

The American Automobile Association and the National Motorists Association agree,

FACT: The American Automobile Association does not oppose the use of red light cameras. AAA leaves many policy decisions up to their state and local chapters to decide. Some of the largest AAA Clubs in the United States (AAA of Southern California which includes Texas, AAA New York and AAA Mid-Atlantic support red light cameras. The Canadian Automobile Association is also supportive of red light cameras.

and opposition has led several states to enact laws restricting the use of traffic cameras.

FACT: Only five states have done this, and no new state law restricting the use of photo enforcement has been passed in years. The Virginia House allowed the 10-year law authorizing red light cameras to expire. Wisconsin and New Jersey specifically only prohibit speed cameras. In comparison, 12 states and the District of Columbia have enacted state laws allowing red light cameras, and communities in 8 more have established red light camera programs under “home rule” provisions. The legislative trend is most definitely moving in favor of communities that want to be able to use red light cameras.

Meanwhile, some motorists are taking matters into their own hands. Various devices of dubious legality are sold to drivers to render traffic cameras ineffectual, including reflective sprays and polarized license-plate covers that promise to make the photos illegible. (In Europe, the GPS-based Talex Speed Camera Alert System warns drivers approaching areas known to be camera-equipped.) Some motorists have resorted to vandalism, shooting or spray-painting the cameras.

Defenders of the cameras respond that red-light running is a genuine problem, and that something has to be done about it. But if the emphasis is on safety--rather than on revenue--there are better ways of dealing with the problem. A recent study done by the University of Central Florida for the Florida Department of Transportation found that improving intersection markings in a driving simulator reduced red-light running by 74 percent without increasing the number of rear-end collisions.

FACT: Simulator studies do not capture real-world effects of interventions such as the subject of this research, and thus are of little or no value.  Participants know they are on a simulator and are participating in a study.  Plus, the intervention is carefully explained to them, unlike real-world use of traffic control devices. 

Likewise, a Texas Transportation Institute study found that lengthening yellow-light times cut down dramatically on red-light running. It also found that most traffic-camera violations occurred within the first second after the light turned red (the average was just one-half second after the light change), while most T-bone collisions occurred 5 or more seconds after the light change. If there's a problem, cameras aren't really addressing it.

FACT: The Texas Transportation Institute study only analyzed a few months of data after the yellow-light intervals were extended. The research found that while violations did initially decrease, drivers quickly began adapting their driving habits and anticipating the longer yellow interval. One of the study’s primary conclusions was that strict enforcement was the best way to reduce intentional red light running offenders.

Whatever their limitations, law-enforcement cameras can be irresistible for local governments since they're literally money machines.

FACT: Those who make the claim that red light cameras are only about revenue, should consider the following documents:

  • The 2004 analysis of Maryland’s red light camera programs published by The Baltimore Sun,

  • The 2002 California State Auditor Generals report on “Red Light Camera Programs” in California,

  • or the recent report by the Commonwealth of Virginia on the state’s red light camera programs.

All found that many red light camera programs do not generate any revenue above operational costs for the communities that operate them. In many cases, they are maintained at a loss to the community because of the impressive reductions in crashes and violations at various problem intersections.

But voters have other ideas. As an editorial on the automotive blog notes, "Every time photo radar is put to a direct popular vote, it loses." In 2002 the city council in Lyndhurst, Ohio, dropped a plan to install speed cameras after encountering intense public opposition. ("DOA. Never to be revisited again. Bad idea," one councilman said of the proposal.)

FACT: The editorial published on was written by a vociferous camera opponent and only mentions one state and two municipal referendums on speed cameras from the 1990s. It does not mention the statewide legislation approved in 2005 in Maryland and Washington to allow the use of speed cameras in residential areas and school zones. Photo enforcement, and speed cameras in particular, remain popular with the general public, as evidenced by the strong public support shown for the Charlotte, NC and the new Scottsdale, AZ speed camera program. In addition, 82 percent of drivers surveyed in 2002 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration favored the use of cameras to enforce drivers passing a stopped school bus and 78 percent supported the use of cameras to enforce speed limits in school zones.

And in Akron, Ohio, the city council voted to refund a portion of fines to more than 2000 drivers who were ticketed by speed cameras during a 19-day period last year. Among other complaints, some drivers claimed that they were issued tickets in school zones during times when low school-zone speed limits were not in effect. If speed cameras catch on, despite such local opposition, expect to hear similar complaints about badly marked speed zones and other moves calculated to catch motorists unawares.

Two groups likely to embrace traffic cameras, however, are lawyers and political consultants. In many states, photos taken by the cameras will be discoverable under state Freedom of Information acts. That means anyone who asks can get copies. A personal-injury lawyer might use the photos as evidence in support of a lawsuit claiming that intersections are unsafe. A political consultant might look for pictures of incumbent politicians speeding and running lights--and then check to see if the pictures show someone sitting in the passenger seat, and do a little more digging to find out just who that person might be. The possibilities are endless.

FACT: Red light cameras have been extensively used in the litigious localities of San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City for years and none of the scenarios mentioned by Mr. Reynolds have occurred. California state law specifically forbids red light camera evidence from any other use, and images are available only the registered driver and the alleged driver. Five other states have similar privacy provisions. In most cases, red light camera tickets only photograph the rear of the vehicle, so it would be all-but-impossible to identify the number of vehicle occupants or their identities.

But there's more to it than politics. Do we as a nation really want to go down this road? To see where we could be heading, look at Britain with its surveillance cameras. Starting in December, the British government began compiling a database of information from thousands of cameras around the country. Using 35 million license-plate "reads" a day, it will be able to pinpoint the location of every vehicle on British roads. Can you say "Big Brother"?

If voters don't make politicians rethink these automated cops, perhaps lawyers and political opponents will. Otherwise, get used to Big Brother watching you. And mailing you a ticket.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee and writes the blog His book, An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths, will be published this month.
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