By James C. Walker, former National Motorists Association Foundation Executive Director
Editor’s Note: This post first appeared on the NMA’s Driving in America Blog in May 2018. James C. Walker, one of the greatest advocates for motorists’ rights, passed away last summer. Jim especially despised automated ticket cameras. We miss his diligence but can still appreciate his wisdom with his various writings.
The National Motorists Association (NMA) opposes red-light cameras for many reasons. I recently wrote this list to Milwaukee, WI officials, who are seriously considering bringing red-light cameras (RLCs) to their city. With minor changes based on local information, this list will apply to almost any advocacy efforts opposing red-light cameras.
Reason #1: Residents of your Fair City will despise the Program
The vast majority of your city’s residents and visitors will absolutely despise the program. Most will see it as a cash grab, not a safety program. At least sixteen states ban automated ticketing due to public opposition, and some others don’t have programs because the legislature never authorized them.
Reason #2: Red-light Camera Programs will likely lose in a Public Vote
Red-light and/or speed cameras have lost 36 of 40 public votes so far. Given a chance, voters reject red-light and/or speed cameras 90 percent of the time. And votes are a far more accurate view of voters’ true positions than polls.
Reason #3: Red-Light Cameras are a Policing for Profit Scheme
The Public Information Research Group (PIRG) published a major report in 2011 detailing how and why red-light cameras are often abused for profits, not safety.
Involving for-profit ticket camera companies in any part of traffic enforcement virtually guarantees that the real focus will be profits, not safety – because profits are the only real motive of the for-profit camera companies.
Reason #4: Many times, the Presence of Red-Light Cameras will often increase crash rates
It doesn’t happen at every intersection, but red-light cameras often increase total crash rates at camera intersections. Higher crash rates cannot be considered an acceptable result of any safety program. Unbiased sources of data and its analysis are always the best, not data or analysis from any group in the revenue stream from red-light cameras.
A statewide report was released in Florida in January 2017, stating that crashes go up at red-light camera intersections. Eleven months before, Tampa released a city-wide audit, which indicated that 19 of the 22 RLC intersections had more accidents with a total increase of 39 percent.
In a 2013 report from Philadelphia, ten years of accident data showed that there was a 27 percent increase in the number of collisions involving an injury at red-light cameras intersections. Angle collisions did not decrease as promised by the camera company.
From 2009, an NMA blog post on an investigation on red-light cameras in Los Angeles (NOTE: the red-light cameras were later removed at the specific request of the police authorities.)
Many other studies on the NMA website indicate similar results.
Reason #5: For increased Safety, Lengthen Yellow Light Timings
If the yellow traffic light intervals are set long enough for the actual perception/reaction times and actual approach speeds of at least 85 percent of the drivers, the violation rates will likely be too low to justify cameras for either safety or financial reasons.
Cities should first try adding just one second to the yellow intervals, an amount that usually compensates for short perception/reaction times, and too-low approach speeds. The violation rates will almost certainly drop by at least 60% and more likely 70 to 90 percent, proving that engineering is the real answer, not punitive enforcement with cameras using yellow intervals left slightly too short for the actual conditions.
Denton, Texas experimented in April 2018 with one red-light camera intersection. They lengthened the yellow light timings by one second and immediately saw a 62 percent cut in RLC violations. This may prompt the city that is having budget trouble due to overtime payments to police for red-light camera enforcement to reconsider the program in the future.
The NMA website has many articles and studies concerning yellow light timings. Particularly note the compendium of information by Safer Streets Los Angeles that shows the reduced violation rates with longer yellow intervals are permanent, not temporary, as falsely claimed by the for-profit camera companies.
Reason #6: Mostly Safe Drivers are fined for Slow Rolling Right on Red Turns
Most cities with red-light cameras also use them to fine almost entirely safe drivers making a slow-rolling right on red turns. Federal research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for a Report to Congress shows that right on red turns (The research included turns with or without a full stop.) are involved in only six one-hundredths of one percent (0.06 percent or 0.0006) of crashes with injuries or fatalities. Almost every slow rolling right on red camera ticket goes to a safe driver who endangered no one.
Reason #7: Vast Majority of Drivers Receive Tickets for less than one second into the Red
A disconnect exists in the sales presentation claims by the for-profit camera companies and the videos they put out. The sales premise of stopping dangerous crashes is simply false. Those crashes and near misses occur with violations after the lights have been red for several seconds, often five to nine seconds into the red is the most dangerous interval. Those drivers never recognized the lights were red because the drivers were heavily distracted by something, DUI, medically impaired, under the influence of legal or illegal drugs, severely fatigued, etc. – or even fleeing police. Sending those drivers bills in the mail weeks later does not stop those terrible crashes because the drivers never recognized the lights were already red until too late.
The vast majority of camera tickets will go to safe drivers for harmless violations of less than one second into the red. Those drivers clear the intersections during the all-red phase plus the short start-up delay before the cross-traffic moves into the intersections when they get green lights. Their crash risks for those inadvertent split-second violations often caused by too-short yellows are zero—because the cross-traffic is not yet in the intersection.
The for-profit camera companies depend upon ticketing mostly safe drivers for harmless technical fouls and then splitting the profits with their city business partners.
Reason #8: RLCs are Regressive for Lower-Income Drivers
Red-light camera fines are very regressive for lower-income citizens. The fines may be seen as just an annoying “road tax” to a middle-class executive but can be punishingly large to service workers in minimum wage jobs with families to try to house, feed, and clothe. Some of these low-income workers will be unable to pay the fines and may then be subject to collection efforts, suspended vehicle registrations or driver’s licenses, or other sanctions. The practical results for many poor people may be a lot like putting them in debtor prisons, unable to legally drive to work.
Michigan went through a terrible 14-year tragedy with a wrongful Drivers Responsibility Fees law that was finally repealed this year (January 2019), in part due to long term efforts by Michigan’s judges and the NMA. Some 350,000 low-income drivers who could never pay the fees will finally be able to get their suspended driver’s licenses reinstated after October 1st of this year—and be able to drive to get to jobs and rejoin the workforce as productive citizens.
It would be best if any state never risks such a tragedy for your lower-income citizens.
Reason #9: The Local Economy will Suffer
Ticket cameras do severe economic damage to businesses, their employees, and ultimately hurt your tax base. The Federal Reserve calculates the “Velocity of Money” at about six times per year, meaning $100 spent on January 1st will circulate through the year to produce about $600 in total sales of goods and services by December 31st. Red-light cameras usually cost at least $4,000 per month per camera.
For Example, If Milwaukee installs 40 red-light cameras, this will likely cost at least $160,000 per month or $1.9+ million per year—just to the vendor. Circulating about six times in a year, this $1.9+ million would produce $11+ million of total sales of goods and services, almost all of that economic turnover in the state where the for-profit camera vendor is located. It would be far better to keep that economic activity in Milwaukee and Wisconsin to benefit your economies, rather than improving the economies of Arizona, Massachusetts, or maybe Florida, where several of the major for-profit camera companies are located.
Reason #10: RLC Programs are on the Downslide Nationwide
Red-light camera programs are decreasing nationwide, and starting one now in your city would put you on the wrong side of the decreasing numbers of red-light camera programs. The NMA believes the current quoted number of 421 programs from the IIHS is too high because some programs have been closed, and some of the listings are duplicates under the same government authority.
Here are some examples of programs that have closed in the past 10 years:
- A five-year “pilot” program in New Jersey was shut down in 2014 after high public opposition and without data to show real safety results.
- Eighty California cities were reported to have dropped red-light cameras or prohibited them before any were installed. There are now only 29 active programs in California in a state that once had over 100. Cathedral City was the latest CA community to end the use of cameras.
- Kingman, Arizona, decided in 2018 not to restart a closed red-light camera program.
If you would like to add to this list, drop the NMA a comment below.
You can read a great deal more material on the NMA website about red-light cameras and why they are almost entirely about money, not safety.
The NMA urges every city to totally reject the idea of using red-light cameras and make some simple engineering adjustments to traffic lights and intersections to make them safer and sharply reduce violation rates.