The Truth About Red Light Cameras
by Congressman Dick Armey (R)
July 20, 2001
Over 50 cities across the country now use cameras at intersections to catch "red light runners." Even more communities are laying the groundwork to install these devices on their streets in the near future.
It makes you wonder why the devices seem to be so attractive. If you listen to local politicians, you'll hear of the significant safety benefit provided to the community, and you'll hear indignation at any suggestion that profit is their true motive.
Newly uncovered documents from red light camera programs in California and Arizona suggest otherwise. The camera lobby has been hiding the truth about how intersections are being left deliberately mistimed-a dangerous condition-for the sake of profit.
And the public is being deceived.
Two attorneys representing 290 motorists in San Diego, California have taken on this system-and won. Arthur F. Tait and Coleen Cusak forced the city to pull the plug on all nineteen red light cameras after they uncovered evidence that the camera hardware was being manipulated to entrap motorists.
Their lawsuit also forced the private company that operates the cameras to release over 5,000 pages of confidential documents about the program. These papers describe what the real motivating factor behind these cameras has been.
Safety was never the primary consideration. In fact, none of the devices were placed at any of San Diego's top-ten most dangerous intersections. Instead, the documents tell us how the camera operators consciously sought out mistimed intersections as locations for new red light cameras.
Yellow signal time at intersections turns out to be directly related to "red light running." Simply put, when the yellow light is short, more people enter on red. Inadequate yellow time causes a condition where individuals approaching an intersection are unable either to come to a safe stop or proceed safely before the light turns red.
Though dangerous, this condition also turns out to be very profitable. Each time someone ends up in an intersection on red in San Diego, the city collects $271. And $70 of that fine is paid as bounty to the city's private contractor. Combine hefty fines with mistimed signals and you've found the formula for big money. A single camera brought the city $6.8 million in just 18 months.
My office has produced a report that suggests several cities nationwide purposely ignored proven engineering solutions to intersection accidents in favor of this big money formula. The newly released documents show exactly how this could happen.
Consider the intersection of Mission Bay Drive and Grand Avenue in San Diego. With a yellow time of 3 seconds, the intersection produced about 2,300 violations every month.
Documents show that the yellow time was increased to 4.7 seconds at that particular intersection on July 28, 2000. Immediately after the change, red light entries dropped 90 percent -- and they stayed down.
The simple and inexpensive step of adding a little over a second to the yellow time produced a significant safety benefit. Did the city tell the world of its success? Did the city refocus its efforts to correct signal timing at other intersections? No. That's because this "success" cost the City of San Diego $3 million in yearly revenue it would have otherwise collected from the mistimed signal.
Red light entries similarly dropped about 70 percent in Mesa, Arizona after the city increased yellow times at its intersections in response to motorist complaints. The problem subsided so dramatically that their camera program turned into a big money loser. The incredible truth about Mesa, however, is that the city had to break its contract with the camera operators to achieve this safety benefit.
Inadequate yellows are more dangerous, but they are also more profitable. It's hard to conceive another explanation for a contract that prevents engineering safety measures that could dilute profits. Given this new information, it's time to demand accountability. Signal times should be set according to what produces the most safety. They should not be set to a level that assures a steady stream of profit.
Motorists should not be put at risk so local bureaucrats, private vendors and insurance companies can line their pockets.
Cities should be encouraged to use the engineering standards in place before cameras corrupted the system. Red light camera revenue dries up when the intersections are not rigged against the motorist. And when the revenue goes away, so does the true motivation for Big Brother's high-tech speed traps.
The next time you hear a politician trying to exploit the tragedy that happens at dangerous intersections, be sure to hold on to your wallet and smile for the camera.