NMA E-Newsletter #147 – Caution: Red Light Cameras Ahead

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) issued a sweeping report last week that provides stern warnings and plenty of cautionary tales of what can go wrong when cities allow privatized ticket camera companies to dictate local law enforcement policy.

When reading “Caution: Red Light Cameras Ahead,” you may feel a sense of déjà vu. That would be because much of what is in the report has been highlighted many times before by the NMA.

Here are some key excerpts from the report:

“Before pursuing a camera system contract, local governments should heed the advice of the Federal Highway Administration and first investigate traffic engineering solutions for problem intersections or roadways.”

“Privatized traffic law enforcement should be used solely as a tool for enhancing traffic safety—not as a cash cow for municipalities or private firms.”

“But when private firms and municipalities consider revenues first, and safety second, the public interest is threatened.”

“The most problematic contracts require cities to share revenue with the camera vendor on a per-ticket basis or through other formulas as a percentage of revenue. In other words, the more tickets a camera system issues, the more profit the vendor collects.”

“Some [red light camera] contracts include language that could penalize municipalities if they do not approve enough tickets—effectively setting a ticket quota and undermining the authority of local officials to decide which violations warrant citation .. . . Other contracts give camera vendors the ability to veto proposed camera locations, sometimes referring to a minimum ticket number or revenue requirement.”

“For example, some contracts impose financial penalties on cities that undertake safety engineering modifications at intersections governed by camera systems—especially when those modifications have an effect on the volume of citations a system can issue, and thus the amount of revenue it can generate.”

“Accordingly, decisions affecting yellow light timing at an intersection monitored by an automated traffic signal enforcement system affect the number of tickets a system can issue—and thus, the amount of revenue that it can generate. Some contracts that municipalities have signed with camera vendors include provisions that inhibit local authorities from determining and setting their own appropriate yellow light timing.”

“It is hard to imagine meter readers lobbying for an increase in the number of parking meters in a town, or traffic cops arguing for more stop signs, solely on the basis that doing so would enable them to write more tickets. Yet, that is precisely the dynamic that exists with the privatized traffic enforcement industry.”

“The experience of cities that have privatized aspects of their traffic law enforcement duties in recent years shows major risks involved in privatization deals. Bad deals can erode a city’s authority to set its own traffic safety goals and leave taxpayers saddled with millions of dollars in unanticipated costs.”

In its reporting of the U.S. PIRG report, The Wall Street Journal noted:

“David Kelly [president of the National Coalition for Safer Roads] said the flaw in the research group’s study is that vendors don’t create traffic violations — motorists do. Vendors ‘aren’t creating a market. The people running the red lights are creating the market,’ he said.”

Mr. Kelly dutifully ignored the many references in the report of how yellow light intervals and right turn on red enforcement practices can drastically affect how many tickets are issued.

Why would he do that?

Because the National Coalition for Safer Roads is a PR group run by prominent red-light camera vendor American Traffic Solutions.

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