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Cameras are good -- at stopping up budget holes
The argument against red-light cameras
By Matthew Hoffman | Guest Columnist

Matthew Hoffman


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Published: 11/24/2008 12:15 AM

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Matthew Hoffman, traffic-case attorney who practices in Lake and Cook counties, opposes red-light cameras.

Ask a police officer in your town why a red-light traffic camera just went up at a local intersection, and most likely you'll hear it was put there to promote safety.

If you press further, you might hear reference to a statistic or two, claiming these cameras actually reduce accidents.

The pro-camera law enforcement argument usually goes something like this: Towns install the cameras. Drivers see the cameras and stop running red lights. Crashes go down. Injuries decrease.

What you won't hear in this conversation is the sound of your town's cash registers ringing like slot machines at the nearest state-licensed casino when all the newly minted dollars start flooding in. You also won't see the self-satisfied smiles of your own elected village board members who creatively resolved next year's budget shortfall by tapping into this new form of technological taxation.

And certainly you won't hear the prospective crunch of a tractor trailer rear-ending a subcompact that stopped short of an otherwise passable yellow light.

In their stated desires, municipalities that set up red-light cameras are at least half-correct. Studies have shown that the cameras do, indeed, alter driving behavior. Lots of people go out of their way to act lawfully when in sight of the menacing lenses. People slow down. They bring their vehicles to cautious, peaceful stops.

Yet, a lot of other people resolve the instantaneous crisis presented by red-light cameras in completely different and undesirable ways. Spotting cameras, some hit the gas in an arguably insane effort to beat the devices at their own high-speed game. Others, as described, simply slam on the brakes.

The only thing that really is known about red-light traffic cameras is that they are good at raising revenue. With roughly 136 cameras, so far the city of Chicago has mailed over 1.1 million red light camera tickets worth around $100 million. There's a reason the city just signed a new five-year, $32 million contract extension with Australia-based Redflex Traffic Systems to steroidally enhance its number of cameras to 290.

Other major cities have taken a different view of this new form of highway robbery.

In 2005, the mayor of Cincinnati refreshingly vetoed a camera ordinance, stating: "Let's be honest with the public - we didn't think about this until we came up with a budget problem." On Nov. 4, Cincinnati voters, at a ratio of 51 percent to 49 percent, approved an amendment to the city charter banning red-light cameras forever.

Over the past decade, studies have delivered, at best, ambiguous, and, at worst, troublesome conclusions as to whether the cameras do anything to reduce accidents.

A 2007 study by the Virginia Department of Transportation found that after cameras were placed, both the frequency of rear-end crashes and the total number of crashes grew. A 2008 report by researchers from the University of South Florida College of Public Health concluded that "cameras actually increase crashes and injuries, providing a safety argument not to install them" anywhere in that state.

Even law enforcement is starting to question the efficacy of the programs. Citing what he termed an "awful lot of ambiguity and dissonance" in the various studies, last month the deputy police chief of San Jose, Calif., the state's third-largest city, argued to his own city council that the cameras should not be used. He favored traffic enforcement conducted by real live police.

This is to say nothing about the repugnant legal mechanisms with which red light camera tickets are prosecuted. By hiding within a system of civil fines and scrupulously steering clear of enforcing the tickets as bona fide moving violations, Illinois municipalities are able to strip away rights and employ procedures that would never pass constitutional muster in traffic court.

The use of administrative hearing officers on village payrolls to adjudicate factual disputes, the presumption that the owner of the vehicle was the driver, and the extreme weight given to automatically-admissible photographic and video "evidence" all demonstrate that the government is playing this ignoble game with a stacked deck.