By John Bowman, Communications Director, National Motorists Association
The legislative proposal to allow communities throughout Illinois to use speed camera traffic enforcement (photo radar) represents bad public policy. If enacted it will seriously infringe on the rights of the driving public, harm the economies of communities that adopt it and shift the emphasis of traffic enforcement from safety to a for-profit enterprise driven by ticket quotas.
By its very nature the use of cameras to remotely monitor traffic for potential violations and automatically issue citations is anathema to the civil rights of Illinois’ eight million licensed drivers.
By replacing police officers with cameras, there is no certifiable witness to the alleged violation and no accuser for a motorist to confront in court, which is a constitutional right. There is no one to personally testify to the circumstances of the alleged violation or to discern special circumstances. Just because a camera unit was operating properly when it was set up does not mean it was operating properly when the picture was taken of any given vehicle, yet courts often accept photo radar evidence unconditionally.
People accused of violations may not receive citations until weeks after the incident. This delay puts them at a disadvantage when trying to defend themselves. They may not recall the circumstances surrounding the supposed violation. They may have been responding to an emergency or to a hazard on the road. They may not have been driving the vehicle on the day the citation was generated.
This last point brings up a critical flaw inherent throughout camera-based traffic enforcement: The photos do not identify the driver of the vehicle involved in the incident. The owner of the vehicle is therefore assumed to be responsible and is mailed the ticket, even if he or she was not driving the vehicle and may not know who was driving at the time. This turns the justice system on its head; the owner of the vehicle must now prove his or her innocence. This becomes even more onerous if the ticket was issued in error.
Yes, despite what the supporters of photo radar claim, cameras make mistakes. Lots of them.
Consider the case of Baltimore. The city’s extensive speed camera network has been shut down since April of 2013 after revelations of widespread errors and inaccuracies came to light. Not only did the cameras issue tickets to non-moving vehicles, an audit revealed the system issued thousands of faulty citations, chalking up an error rate of more than 10 percent, 40 times greater than previously acknowledged. Not surprisingly, city officials resisted calls to release the audit, and the findings were only made public after being leaked to The Baltimore Sun.
Closer to home, the saga of Elmwood Place, Ohio, provides a cautionary tale for any Illinois community considering its own speed camera initiative. Village officials may have thought they were making a smart decision when they installed speed cameras in September 2012. But the backlash was almost immediate. In one month 6,600 photo tickets were issued, three times the total population of the village. Local businesses suffered as drivers avoided Elmwood Place.
Angry motorists soon confronted village officials at a village council meeting. Shortly after that, a council member called for the mayor’s resignation over her handling of the affair. She declined. In May 2013 four of six council members resigned over how the cameras were being used, leaving the village without a quorum and unable to conduct its affairs. The village now faces a costly class-action suit and may have to refund nearly $1.8 million in camera ticket fines.
Given the fact that speed cameras can be so destructive to communities—sowing distrust among public officials, degrading respect for law enforcement, increasing exposure to lawsuits and financial entanglements—one wonders why public officials consider them in the first place.
The standard industry response is that speed cameras increase safety, yet study after study refute that claim. If safety is the goal, there are better ways to achieve it. First, speed limits need to be established according to established traffic engineering practice. This ensures that traffic can move smoothly and safely. It also discourages the temptation to set speed limits too low for prevailing conditions, which can actually increase accidents.
School zones need to be conspicuously marked to give drivers, especially those unfamiliar with the area, enough warning to slow down. Instead of using speed cameras, consider radar speed display signs that tell drivers how fast they’re going. Numerous studies have shown such devices to be extremely effective—and cost effective—in reducing travel speeds in school zones. Unlike unobtrusively placed speed cameras, radar speed signs are specifically designed to get the attention of distracted drivers and get them to slow down.
Responsible motorists will slow down when adequately warned, especially since many of them driving through a school zone are transporting children of their own. Drivers who speed through school zones are often distracted. The presence of a camera will not slow them down. It can only mail them a ticket, usually several weeks after the fact.
And this is the fundamental truth of speed cameras: they are not intended to improve highway safety. They are intended to generate revenue for the cities and the camera companies that operate them. This creates a conflict between the public interest and the interests of public officials and private industry.
Consider the ongoing bribery scandal surrounding former Chicago ticket camera vendor Redflex. The company has been the subject of a $2 million bribery probe involving Chicago city officials. Based on statements from a former Redflex executive, the investigation has now widened to include bribery allegations across 14 states. This is what happens when municipalities contract out law enforcement functions to private firms motivated more by profit than by serving the public.
Instead of looking for ways to spread this harmful practice, Illinois lawmakers should pass legislation to ban all photo-based traffic enforcement from the state.
This article was originally published in the April 2014 issue of the Illinois Business Journal. Reproduced with permission.