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Reconsidering Photo-Cop

October 17, 2013 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Driving Interstate Hwy. 380 through Iowa a while back, I was busted by a speed camera. I didn't know it until weeks later, when a letter bearing a photo of my car arrived from the city of Cedar Rapids hitting me up for a $75 fine. I was clocked at 69 m.p.h. in a 55 zone.

I've long been a smug advocate of photo-cop devices to improve traffic safety, but now Mr. Transportation Fellow is having second thoughts, and not just because he got caught by one. Maybe it's not such a bad thing that the Minnesota Supreme Court has found no legal foundation for automated traffic enforcement around here and the Legislature has declined to provide one.

Folks in many of the 24 states and more than 500 local jurisdictions where this technology has been deployed are also reconsidering, along three basic lines of criticism:

  • When the "witness" to a driving infraction is an unmanned machine, where does that leave the accused's constitutional right to confront his or her accuser?
  • What about an alleged tendency of government officials to grow dependent on photo-cop more as a cash cow, described by one critic as a "back-door tax increase," than as a safety measure?
  • Finally, studies have shown that while red-light cameras reduce cross-traffic "T-bone" crashes, they actually increase the rear-end variety because of sudden stops to avoid a photo-ticket. The former are generally considered more severe, but anyone who's suffered whiplash from a rear-ender will tell you such soft-tissue injuries don't get the recognition for debilitation they deserve. And, at intersections where signal violations are rare, cameras have been found only to increase rear-end collisions without decreasing other kinds.

On the other hand, there's something a bit suspect about objections to automation that enforces petty misdemeanor traffic laws at a low cost, leaving human cops free to chase felons. As Minnesota blogger Bill Lindeke has noted on, "The main gripe with red-light cameras is that they are too effective. People are upset because they actually work, they actually enforce the law. How unfair!"

That observation may apply more to speed cameras, however. Many drivers routinely exceed the posted limit, but relatively few consciously blow through red lights. According to Pew/Stateline, a 2011 insurance industry poll of drivers in 14 big cities with red-light cameras found two-thirds in support. Last year, voters from New Jersey to Washington state rejected ballot initiatives to remove them.

Still, nine states explicitly prohibit them, and lawmakers in Colorado, Iowa, New Jersey and Ohio have considered doing so.

However, there are many ways short of a ban to eliminate the potential for abuse of signal cameras. They now can photo-ID the driver as well as the vehicle, ensuring that no one is falsely accused after a car is borrowed or stolen. Proposed legislation in Minnesota would limit cameras to corners with serious safety problems, and prohibit companies that provide the technology from being paid based on the number of citations issued.

This kind of flat-fee payment is already collected by some vendors and required in the state of Texas. The Stateline article said red-light video is reviewed by both a company analyst and a law officer before a citation is issued. To minimize motivation to line government's general coffers, red-light camera fines above the technology's direct costs go to trauma centers and local transportation expenses in Texas, to competitive traffic safety grants for cities in Pennsylvania.

And, in a safeguard against virtual entrapment, Florida authorities are lengthening the duration of yellow caution lights, over the next few weeks at intersections with cameras and by June 2015 at all the rest. Officials say that will both enhance safety and combat suspicions, voiced this year by a Wisconsin motorists group, that yellow lights are kept short to boost revenue. Last, year, Sunshine State motorists caught by photo-cops forked over more than $100 million.

Similar protections could be applied, as well, to speed cameras, which have not spread so widely in America. More states (12) have banned them than have them (eight). While red-light cameras were briefly deployed in Minneapolis before the court nixed them, Minnesota has never had auto-cops tracking our speed.

If a current controversy south of our border is any indication, we may never get them. The head of the Iowa Department of Transportation has accused Hawkeye State cities of cashing in unfairly on both speed and red-light devices. "I see this as a revenue issue," IDOT Director Paul Trombino told a legislative committee last week.

Iowa legislators are weighing rules to limit local officials' authority to install automated traffic enforcement devices on state highways. Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Sioux City and other local units have collected millions of dollars a year via photo-cop, and state officials "worry that even tiny communities along I-80 could try to generate extra cash by claiming a traffic safety concern and installing speed cameras along routes heavily traveled by out-of-state motorists," the Des Moines Register reported.

City officials shot back that speed cameras have sharply reduced speeding on interstate highways, and a Cedar Rapids lobbyist testified that the devices have saved lives and cut serious crashes on I-380. A Des Moines police lieutenant said a speed camera on I-235 works where the highway is too narrow for officers to pull over speeders. But when the Council Bluffs public works director, after extolling the safety benefits of the city's red-light cameras, was asked if he would allow fines to go to the state instead of the city, replied: "If you asked my opinion, we would like to keep the revenue."

In some cases, automated radar may be just a high-tech version of the small-town cop lurking behind a billboard to nab passers-through who don't slow down quickly enough from highway speed. But speed cameras can still be part of the traffic safety toolbox as long as proper safeguards against revenue-grubbing are in place.

There should be studies to identify rare exceptions to the general rule that urban interstates are among our safest roadways, warning signs and reasonable speed limits with no sudden changes where cameras are deployed. And, although it might not have helped me in Cedar Rapids, I'd like to see some version of what my former Star Tribune colleague Bob Whereatt called Minnesota's Greatest Law Ever.

That's the Dimmler Amendment. Under it, you can be ticketed for exceeding a 55 m.p.h. limit by fewer than 10 ticks of the speedometer, but the violation can't be reported to your insurance company for a premium hike, which usually far outstrips the fine. To me, that strikes a sensible balance between protecting public safety and just siphoning an unlucky driver's bank account.

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  • Richard A Newmark says:

    October 21, 2013 at 9:38 am

    My safety as a bicyclist and pedestrian is impaired on a daily basis by vehicles blatantly running red lights and my safety as a driver endangered by motorists speeding well in excess of 10 mph over the speed limit on freeways, especially when they weave around cars and pass on the right at 75. In a webinar presentation last week, Orlando Orres, Florida Account Manager, American Traffic Solutions, claims that red light cameras decreased the number of crashes by 56.2% and that rear end crashes decreased by 41%. Miami Gardens, FL, observed a 68% reduction in crashes, resulting in tremenous savings in auto damage and health care costs. I encourage you to look at statistics from red light enforcement in Washington DC and Florida.

  • Stan says:

    October 21, 2013 at 10:02 am

    Just this morning a car accelerated through a red light while I was trying to complete a left turn.  Running red lights has got to stop and a Photo-Cop is an ideal technology to begin to change behavior.

    I propose that the State raise the vehicle registration fee by $90 per year and immediately credit the car owner with a $90 “minimal impact vehicle credit”.  In the event of a Photo-Cop recorded activity (e.g. running a red light) or a warning written by a police officer, the “minimal impact vehicle credit” will be reduced by $30.  Therefore, at the time the license tab fees are collected those owners of vehicles that have larger impact on the safety and function of our highway system will cost more to operate.

    None of this activity needs to be reported to insurance companies, but those vehicles that frequently violate the roadway standards will bear and incremental cost.  Over time it will change behavior.

  • Tim Bonham says:

    October 22, 2013 at 5:11 am

    Most people run red lights when there is no cross traffic.  Which means they are sitting frustrated at a red light, while the signal is green on the cross street, but there are no cars using that street.  Which means that the timing on the traffic light is wrong.

    The same technology that is used in red-light cameras could also be used in the traffic signal lights, to make them ‘demand-driven’—the length of time for the red signal would adjust based on the traffic on the side street.  If there are no cars on the side road, the light for the main road would not turn red at all.  So this same technology could be used as a trap to ‘catch’ drivers & earn money for cities, or it could be used to upgrade our traffic signals, and improve the overall efficiency of the traffic system. 
    So far, cities seem to prefer the former.  (Pushed of course, by the people who make this technology, since they get a continuing income from their share of the fines.)

    So if Minnesota ever allows red-light cameras, we taxpaying drivers should demand that for all intersections with them installed, an equal number of intersections are upgraded to demand-driven signal timing.