The War Over Traffic Cameras


When Adolph Belt Jr. was notified by mail that his car had been photographed speeding through a red light in Springfield, Mo., he had every reason to be surprised. Belt isn’t just a law-abiding citizen; he had worked for 30 years on the state’s highway patrol and is considered to be a “traffic expert.”

According to the Joplin Globe, after he found out about the ticket, Belt decided to go back to the intersection, and time the traffic lights himself. Sure enough, he found that the duration of yellow light was shorter than it was supposed to be. Unfortunately, there was no way for the traffic light camera to know that, and despite his evidence, the city decided he was guilty and fined him the standard $100 fee.

Unsatisfied, Belt took his case all the way to the state Supreme Court and managed to overturn his ticket earlier this year in what was a rare legal repudiation of red-light cameras. The court did not rule that these cameras were unconstitutional, or that they did not work, both of which are complaints that have been leveled against them by opponents. Instead the court simply ruled that the way Springfield processed tickets against people like Belt did not demand a high enough burden of proof. Rather than process tickets through a criminal court, where a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilt, Springfield handled the claims in administrative proceedings where citizens were more or less assumed to be guilty from the start and had less chance to appeal the ticket. The cameras work fine, the court seemed to say, but that doesn’t mean they are infallible.

Few things inspire such polarized feelings as red-light cameras. What’s more is that while this technology is designed to boost public safety, often it only seems to boost the public’s ire.

If you are unfamiliar with red-light cameras, consider yourself lucky. Over the past decade, these cameras have become more common in cities and towns across the country. Baltimore, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and many more urban and suburban locations have at least a few cameras on their roads, and more names will likely join the list before the year is done.

Red-light cameras are installed at busy intersections and monitor cars that pass the stop line or crosswalk above a certain speed after the light has already turned red. The cameras record the license plate of the car in question and use that information to mail a ticket to the offender after the incident.

The arguments in favor of these cameras are fairly obvious. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, red-light cameras reduce the number of drivers running traffic lights, prevent collisions and do both more effectively than traditional law enforcement can. “Enforcing traffic laws in dense urban areas by traditional means poses special difficulties for police, who in most cases must follow a violating vehicle through a red light to stop it,” their site says. “This can endanger motorists and pedestrians as well as officers, and police cannot be everywhere at once.”

Yet, the list of grievances against these cameras is fantastically long. If critics are to be believed, these cameras are more than just a pain in the butt for drivers; they are undermining our society as we know it and “depriving us of our constitutional rights.” The cameras have been slammed as an effort by the government to control our lives. They’ve been likened to Big Brother. Lawsuits have been filed arguing that a police officer, not just a camera, needs to be present at the intersection to witness the crime. And then there’s the fact that it’s possible to con the system. Many critics have pointed out that the cameras only tell you the license plate and the owner of the car, not the person who was actually behind the wheel. One student took advantage of this and actually pasted a copy of their classmate’s license over his own to get him in trouble for running a red light.

Perhaps the biggest complaint of all is the belief that the real reason local governments install these cameras is not to make citizens safer, but rather to make money. Last year, one class-action lawsuit filed against 20 Washington cities with red-light cameras argued that this is essentially a hyper-efficient system for fining citizens to raise revenue for the city. But some cities argue the reverse may be true. Because the cameras prove to be more vigilant and effective at catching drivers than authorities could ever be, citizens are forced to be better drivers and the net result is that the city ends up issuing fewer tickets in the long run, losing money. This proved to be the case in Dallas, which turned off many of its red-light cameras because they proved “too effective.” Of course, even that argument could be seen as proof that the end goal is boosting revenue, not safety.

Ultimately, though, there is an even more pressing issue to consider. Do these cameras actually increase safety at all? After an endless number of studies in recent years, the answer remains muddled.

Six years after Washington, D.C., installed red light cameras, a study showed that the city had managed to raise millions in extra revenue, but the number of accidents at intersections in the city had actually doubled. Similarly, in Chicago, accidents increased at half of the intersections with red-light cameras and remained unchanged in many others after the first year.

In March of this year, a study in the Journal of Trauma supported the claims that red-light cameras help reduce the number of cars that speed through a red light. However, the study also found that the cameras do not help prevent traffic collisions. In particular, some studies have pointed out that these cameras often lead to an increase in the number of rear-end crashes, since drivers are more concerned about getting caught in a red light, and decide to stop abruptly.

Over the past few years, the cameras have proved so controversial that several states have moved to ban them outright. Mississippi, Maine and Montana successfully banned them in 2009 and at the moment, Illinois and Missouri are debating similar bans. According to USA Today, voters in smaller cities like Heath, Ohio, and College Station, Texas, have also moved to scrap the cameras all together.

As controversial as they are, red-light cameras do fit into a larger trend of video surveillance technology used for public safety. You don’t have to drive through an intersection to face a camera, some highways have them now too. Similarly, more public places now have hidden police cameras scouting for crimes. Would all this seem more acceptable if studies proved more conclusively that the cameras increased public safety, or are we just inherently fearful of being over-policed?

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