Red Light Cameras: Generating Revenue Reaches a New Low

For anyone who has ever had his or her day ruined by an illegitimate traffic ticket, hear me now.

As you pull up to your average intersection today, your entire periphery is lambasted with a tangle of lit-up arrows and stoplights, crosswalk signals, and signs with even more arrows, shouting directives like NO or ONLY ON TUESDAYS IF RAINING.  Where once stood three colored lights and a bunch of conscientious, alert drivers now sits a bunch of confused, hesitant drivers trying to untangle what essentially looks like a schematic for a nuclear submarine.

But despite the government’s best efforts to remove driver vigilance and judgment from the process of driving, the driver will always need to make his or her own call in one situation: the yellow light.  At some point, every driver gets a last-minute yellow and has to decide whether to keep going or hit the breaks.

FLASH!  Oops, did you decide you didn’t have time to stop?  Well, that’s going to be $450, and we’ll mail you the ticket, along with a souvenir photograph of you picking your nose while yawning.  Drivers, meet the red light camera, the most dangerous and insulting addition to modern intersections.

Similar to what a Canadian retiree might set up in his backyard to catch Bigfoot, the red light camera senses any motion in the intersection after the light turns red and snaps a photo of your license plate so they can issue you a ticket.  Of course, the police claim that the purpose is safety—the idea being that drivers, once aware of these cameras, will be less inclined to run red lights, and there will be fewer accidents.  I can feel my heart cockles warming.

The problem with hiding behind safety on this one is that these cameras have actually increased accidents when better methods are available.  First of all, if you’re driving at night, the flash is very intense—like the light John Travolta saw in Phenomenon.  When your eyes are adjusted to the dark, its liable to give you a seizure, not telekinesis.

Secondly, any reduction in side- and front-impact collisions has, in most camera-enforced intersections, been replaced by an almost equal increase in rear-end collisions from people slamming on their breaks because, although going through the light would be safer, they’re afraid of getting a ticket that costs more than their rent.1

Third, 95% of pictures snapped by these cameras were not people blowing through yellow lights, but rather making an innocuous “rolling right hand turn” at a red light. Only 5% of these misfires were prosecuted, after we paid a sheriff’s deputy to stare at all those blurry pictures.2

But the most infuriating fact: The single best way to reduce accidents at an intersection is to simply lengthen the yellow light time.  Loma Linda saw a 92% decrease in red light citations by extending the yellow light by ONE second.3  You see, most drivers aren’t out racing for pink slips during rush hour; people just need more notice to slow down.  So instead of spending millions on cameras, all they had to do was extend the yellow light by one. freaking. second.

However, the government is SHORTENING the yellow lights at some camera-enforced intersections.  But why would they do that!? (feigned incredulity)  Why, in the face of empirical evidence that more yellow time will solve the problem, would they rather install cameras?  Because the city of San Diego made $20 million in a year-and-a-half using these cameras, more than one officer could generate in a 35-year career.4  Oh, and the manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, got a 15% cut from every ticket.  All at the expense and risk of the commuting taxpayer.

Between the 2 a.m. ticket for rolling a stop sign on an empty street, or the parking ticket issued out of a golf cart during the 15 minutes you were in Kinkos, we’ve gotten used to the police wringing the citizenry like a bar rag for funds, but this time they’ve gone too far.

The good news is these cameras have been ruled unconstitutional in several states already . . . but not yet in California.  In the mean time fellow driver, apply some PhotoStopper reflective spray ($19.95, you can borrow mine if you like) to your license plate to obscure the flash, appeal any tickets you get, e-mail your city councilperson, and together—cue patriotic music—we can show the Man that we conscientious drivers are paying attention.

1. Illinois: Study Finds No Benefit to Chicago’s Red Light Cameras, (last visited Nov. 20, 2010).

2. Loma Linda Keeps Rolling Right Turn Cameras, (last visited Nov. 20, 2010).

3. Id.

4. It’s All About the Money: Revenue Drives Red-Light Cameras, Not Road Safety, (last visited Nov. 20, 2010).

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