It’s official. New Jersey’s red-light cameras went dark last Tuesday after state lawmakers chose not to take up legislation to extend their operation. The five-year pilot program generated controversy from the start. Outspoken critics such as NMA ally and state Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon were quick to point out that photo ticketing was more about generating revenue for cash-strapped municipalities than improving public safety.
The demise of the program is notable for several reasons. First, while well-resourced camera companies and their lackeys made every attempt to salvage the program, they couldn’t gain enough traction with New Jersey lawmakers. (Translation: legislators knew how unpopular and misguided the program was and weren’t going to risk going against the will of the voters.) Second, with cameras spread across 25 cities as part of the pilot program, New Jersey is the first state to abolish cameras statewide. Third, the NMA played a key role in dismantling the program by proving serious flaws in how it was administered and operated.
Things started to unravel in November 2011 when Janice Bollmann received a red-light camera ticket from Edison Township. Angered by the $140 ticket, Bollmann decided to fight. Through a public records request she discovered that Edison had not complied with the state’s certification requirements for proper operation of its cameras.
Bollmann joined the NMA in early 2012 and contacted Steve Carrellas, the NMA’s New Jersey Director of Government and Public Affairs. Bollmann, with the NMA’s assistance, won her case in April that year. But that’s just the beginning of the story.
Realizing that noncompliance with certification requirements could potentially bring down the cameras, Carrellas partnered with O’Scanlon to challenge the legality of the program. In June, public concern over improperly set yellow-light times compelled the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) to suspend ticketing at 63 of the 85 camera locations.
NJDOT subsequently required each municipality to recertify the proper operation of each suspect camera. Amazingly, some did so within one day and all 63 cameras were recertified before the end of June, even though traffic surveys were required for each intersection. NJDOT admitted it did not verify any of the data provided to recertify the cameras.
Many, including the NMA, saw the “recertification” as a farce that would not end camera abuses or make the public any safer. There simply was no independent verification that the yellow-light timing had been set to correspond to prevailing vehicle approach speeds, as required by New Jersey law.
The NMA responded on two fronts. Working with O’Scanlon’s office, we filed a public records request requiring NJDOT to disclose information pertaining to the camera recertification. Next, we dispatched an experienced traffic survey team to New Jersey to find out what was really going on. The team crisscrossed the state for several days measuring the 85th percentile approach speed and yellow-light intervals at several of the questionable intersections.
Not surprisingly, the NMA’s analysis revealed a variety of post-certification improprieties—enough to push for an overhaul of the system. O’Scanlon introduced legislation that would substantially lengthen yellow-light times and make other reforms. The bill died in the committee, but the tide was already turning.
A class action settlement at the end of 2012 forced camera vendor American Traffic Solutions to refund $4.2 million in fines due to improperly certified yellow-light times. Public and media backlash against red-light cameras continued throughout 2013. In early 2014, the mayor of Brick Township created headlines when he pulled the plug on the city’s red-light camera program citing safety and fairness concerns.
As the December 16 camera program expiration date approached, the New Jersey Legislature sent clear signals it was not interested in renewing the program. The chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee said his committee would not even consider legislation to extend the program. Gov. Christie likewise voiced his concerns over the how the program was administered and said his “gut feel” was not to renew it.
The net result is that red-light cameras are history in New Jersey, thanks to the efforts of many concerned citizens, advocates and lawmakers. At least for now. NJDOT still has to make a recommendation to continue the program or not, and policymakers would have to pass legislation to bring it back. We don’t think they will.
Red-light camera programs continue to fail across the country, and the recent indictments and guilty verdicts in the Redflex/Chicago bribery scandal have given the industry a huge black eye. More and more policymakers are figuring out what the anti-camera side knew long ago. Here’s how O’Scanlon recently put it:
If cameras actually increased safety no one would have to bribe anyone for business—we’d all be lining up! How any public entity can continue to do business with Redflex in particular, but really any of these companies pitching these ineffective, thieving cameras is beyond me. Is the lure of fast cash so strong we have decided that morality doesn’t matter?