As stoplight cameras spread, drivers see red

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

As Gabe Leonard drove home through Beverly Hills after midnight one evening, lights flashed as he went through an intersection. He knew instantly he'd been photographed by a traffic camera.

Mr. Leonard tried to recall where his wheels were when the yellow light turned red. He thought he'd beaten the light. But 12 days later he received a summons – including photos of his car, incriminatingly in mid-intersection.

The freelance artist fought the $271 fine in court – and, surprisingly, won. "I decided to fight on principle," says Leonard. "[A red-light camera] presents itself as some sort of infallible process."

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As cameras that detect people who run red lights proliferate across the country, some motorists are calling them a Big Brother and a big bother.

While supporters argue that the devices make roads safer, critics say too many violations involve drivers who enter an intersection just tenths-of-a-second after the light has changed to red. Opponents, such as the ACLU, also complain the cameras are one more step down the path to a "surveillance society." And others worry that cities will become dependent on ticket revenue from the devices, which they have dubbed the "scamera."

"The shoe has been on the wrong foot all along; this is not a driver problem this is a traffic engineering issue," says National Motorist Association President, Jim Baxter.

Although red-light cameras have been adopted by 15 states, a number of signs point to the beginnings of a blacklash.

• Alaska, Nebraska, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Utah have banned photo-enforcement systems.

• Maryland's state senate is mulling bills that would curtail or eliminate the cameras.

• In San Diego, such cameras have been turned off for more than a year following allegations of a conflict-of-interest involving the for-profit vendor who administers the system. Hundreds of tickets have been voided.

House majority leader Dick Armey has also called the cameras a hidden tax. Also of concern to Mr. Armey: The presumption of innocence is lost even if a driver ran a red-light unintentionally by misjudging a yellow light.

"Our technology should adapt to our Constitution and laws, not the other way around," he said in a statement last year.

Red-light-camera systems generally link traffic signals, sensors buried in the pavement at the front edge of an intersection, a camera, and a computer. When a vehicle passes over the sensors after the light has changed to red, the camera usually snaps two photos of the vehicle in the intersection, including identifying license plate information.

"A huge problem in San Diego, and it's echoed throughout the country, is the way yellow lights are timed," says local attorney Arthur Tait. The city reportedly grossed $30 million in revenue during the 18 months that 19 traffic light cameras were in operation.

Proponents of camera systems say that traffic engineers laugh when they hear accusations of shorter yellow-light times. "They're the only people who are allowed to set the yellow-light time in most places, not the police or the vendor running the camera program, and they traditionally follow national engineering standards. Their concern is safety," says Leslie Blakey, coordinator of the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running.

Camera supporters also dismiss the "Big Brother" argument, saying that taking photos of someone violating the law in a public street is not having their privacy invaded. The results, they say, more than validate the cameras' contribution to road safety.

In Oxnard, Calif., red-light running dropped 42 percent citywide after a program began there. In Washington, D.C., the police reported a decrease of 24,000 red-light-running violations monthly in the two years after 39 cameras were installed in 1999.

"The whole basis of our program is to change the behavior of the red-light-running driver," says Sergeant Richard Carlson, program manager for the Sacramento County red-light camera program. Last year the Sheriff's department videotaped one approach to what had been designated one of the 10 most dangerous intersections in the country. The camera caught 62 violations in a 24-hour period. Since red-light cameras were installed at the intersection last spring, the average number of violations has dropped to 13.

Sacramento County is planning on expanding their program by rotating 10 cameras between 30 camera housings. Since drivers will not know which housing contains a camera on any given day, the hope is that 10 cameras will do the deterrent work of 30. Many opponents of the cameras acknowledge studies that show 800-900 deaths are caused each year by red-light runners, but they say those are typically exceptional situations like police chases or heart attacks at the wheel that red-light cameras will never stop.

"The way to correct red-light running is to go back and look at timing, maintenance, and other intersection design issues and correct those problems rather than just spending $50,000 a pop to put up cameras and issue citations to people," says Mr. Baxter.

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