By John Bowman, NMA Communications Director
If the NMA were to teach a college seminar on the political machinations of red-light camera programs and the abuses they perpetrate, we could spend the entire semester studying just one case: New Jersey.
It all started last November 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 January and contacted Steve Carrellas, the NMA’s New Jersey Director of Government and Public Affairs. With the NMA’s assistance, Bollmann fought and won her case in April. But that’s just the beginning of the story.
Realizing that noncompliance with certification requirements could potentially bring down the cameras, Carrellas partnered with New Jersey Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon to challenge the legality of the entire program. By June 19th, public concern over improperly set yellow light times compelled the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) to suspend ticketing operations at 63 of the 85 camera locations statewide.
NJDOT subsequently required each municipality to submit reports showing the suspect cameras were operating within requirements. Some did so within one day of the suspension and all 63 cameras were recertified before the end of June, even though traffic surveys were required to determine the 85th percentile approach speed 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 nothing more than political theater: an empty gesture that would not end ticket camera abuses or make the driving public any safer. There simply was no independent verification that the yellow-light timing at the camera-equipped intersections had been set to correspond to prevailing vehicle approach speeds, as required by New Jersey law.
Red-light cameras thrive when yellow light intervals are set too short for the prevailing speed of traffic. This not only creates a serious (and easily correctable) public safety risk, it generates countless unwarranted traffic citations to motorists who are driving in a responsible manner.
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.
Second, we dispatched an experienced traffic survey team to New Jersey to find out for ourselves 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 final engineering analysis revealed a variety of post-certification improprieties—enough to fuel a push for legislative overhaul of this very flawed system.
O’Scanlon responded by introducing legislation that would substantially lengthen yellow-light times at camera-equipped intersections, reduce penalties for right-turn-on-red citations and provide for a ½ second grace period before the camera activates. Senator Nicholas Scutari has introduced a similar bill in the New Jersey Senate as well.
At the very least, this legislation will help mitigate the predatory nature of the program. Under a best-case scenario, the longer yellow light times will reduce the number of violations to such a degree that the cameras will no longer be financially viable. Once that happens, they will come down.
This cannot happen soon enough as a recent New Jersey red-light camera case illustrates: In August 2011, Lauren Morosoff received a red-light camera ticket from Edison Township. The only problem was she hadn’t lived in the state for five months. What was clearly an easily remedied case of mistaken vehicle identity turned into a Kafkaesque, 15-month long ordeal for a young driver who had done nothing wrong. Read the whole discouraging tale here.
The NMA, O’Scanlon and other camera foes face a tough battle in New Jersey against the combined forces of the camera companies and their public official accomplices. It just came to light, through a public records request filed by O’Scanlon, that at least 11 of the cities using ticket cameras have signed contracts that extend beyond the mandated end date of the pilot program. With these kinds of backroom deals in place, getting cameras out of New Jersey is not a slam dunk.
However, there is good news: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie recently acknowledged the camera program is flawed and expressed willingness to work with legislators to reform it. While we hope New Jersey policymakers will act in the best interests of their constituents, we will be there every step of the way working for our constituents: the 6 million licensed drivers in New Jersey and the more than 200 million nationwide.