NMA Reboot: We Settled the Red-Light Camera Debate Long Ago

This weekly post features recent news stories that highlight and update themes previously covered throughout NMA E-Newsletters and Alerts.

Editor’s Note: Red-light cameras are returning to Fayetteville, North Carolina, this summer after nearly an eight-year absence. The reason? State lawmakers changed the funding formula specifically for Fayetteville and made cameras profitable again. In 2005, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that 90 percent of camera revenue had to go to school funding. As a result, cameras became unprofitable and most cities in the state shut them down. Now, with the money flowing again, cameras are on the way back. That should settle the old safety versus revenue argument once and for all. We made much the same point in this newsletter written in the aftermath of the original court ruling.


NMA E-Newsletter #44: Pure Revenue Motives

Last week, we highlighted the cheerleading that AAA Carolinas did in support of red-light cameras in their Nov/Dec GO magazine. The reaction from NMA members was strong and swift. Within two days of the NMA newsletter, dozens of emails were forwarded for submittal to AAA Carolinas to protest their stance on red-light cameras. Longtime NMA member Bruce Sawicki, who belonged to AAA Carolinas until this story broke, has taken on the responsibility to deliver those messages to the Charlotte, NC based organization.

One oddly phrased section of the AAA pro-camera article caused some head-scratching among many NMA members:

“North Carolina’s law said 90% of the fines collected had to go to fund schools, a fatal financial flaw. The cameras stopped functioning.”

The story behind the meaning of those two sentences is particularly damning evidence that red-light camera programs are revenue-driven, with public safety being a distant afterthought.

Several North Carolina cities began installing and operating red-light cameras in the early 2000s, reaping millions of dollars worth of fines against motorists. Then, in February 2005, the Guilford County Court ruled that Article IX, Section 7 of the North Carolina State Constitution (“clear proceeds of all penalties . . . shall be . . . used exclusively for maintaining free public schools.”) applied to photo enforcement programs. The North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed in May 2006, upholding that 90% of red-light camera fines collected must go to North Carolina schools. In June 2007, the North Carolina Supreme Court refused to reconsider the Court of Appeals ruling.

So what happened when North Carolina cities realized that camera income was no longer theirs to spend, and that they would only be able to keep enough to cover the cost of the photo enforcement programs?

  • High Point, NC dropped its camera program in early 2005
  • Greensboro dropped its camera program in early 2005
  • Charlotte dropped its camera program in early 2007
  • Fayetteville dropped its camera program in mid 2007
  • Greenville dropped its camera program in mid 2007
  • Raleigh dropped its camera program in late 2007
  • Rocky Mount dropped its camera program in early 2009

The pretense that these red-light camera programs were established solely to improve traffic safety became a lost refrain. The cash cow was dead, and the reaction of these North Carolina cities confirmed what we’ve known all along: the motivation behind red-light camera programs is revenue, pure and simple.

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