When wide-eyed salesmen roamed the earth

The memorable phrase of the night was “eye-popping revenue.”

I just found the box with my notes from a 2006 meeting with Swampscott, Massachusetts officials when the town was considering red light cameras.

Back then camera salesmen were working Massachusetts hard. They made about a dozen deals. This time they had convinced selectmen, but voters were opposed.

A town committee met to investigate. I attended on behalf of the NMA.

I felt I should say more than “I don’t like red light cameras” so I did my homework. I drove around town. I walked around town. I checked accident records. I went to town hall to read ordinances. I went to the police station to talk traffic enforcement.

And then I sat down and listened to town officials talk money with a salesman. Did you know a city in California got a million dollars a year net?

That’s what got their eyes popping.

Their bulging eyes needed state permission to treat camera tickets like parking tickets. The revenue might not be there if tickets went to traffic court, and more importantly drivers would face insurance surcharges. Nobody wanted drivers to face any consequence for running red lights. None of the towns chasing cameras even wanted to know who was driving those rolling wallets.

I presented my research. I had numbers, not anecdotes. The town did not have a problem with crashes linked to red-light running. There was nothing cameras could do.

We like to talk about engineering alternatives to enforcement. Making traffic lights visible to drivers is one of them.

Some signals downtown were ancient post-mounted lights against a cluttered background. With afternoon sun behind the driver it was almost impossible to see which color was lit. No wonder people run those lights.

Red light running was clearly not a priority before revenue came into the picture. I learned that by talking to police officers. Nobody in the station knew how to write a red light ticket. I’m still not sure the town even had an ordinance prohibiting running a red light. (It’s not a state law violation here.)

Of course the chief wasn’t opposed to enforcement on principle. He asked rhetorically, “how can I not be comfortable with compliance?” On the other hand, a nearby city gave up crosswalk stings because they caused rear-enders, and red light cameras were already known to have the same problem…

The committee recommended against red light cameras. It agreed with my conclusion that there was no safety problem and my opinion that the town shouldn’t use traffic enforcement to raise revenue. Nevertheless, selectmen pushed forward with the plan until it was clear the state would not authorize camera enforcement.

Governor Patrick tried to make cameras legal, as NMA pointed out in an alert in 2009, but legislators didn’t back him up.

None of those dozen contracts turned into tickets.

The opinions expressed in belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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