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May 4th, 2009
08:56 AM ET

Red Light Cameras Spur Debate

CNN's Carol Costello explores whether traffic light cameras are for safety or profit.

CNN's Carol Costello explores whether traffic light cameras are for safety or profit.

By Ronni Berke, CNN

New York (CNN) - When a red light camera photographed Terry Williams going through a Santa Monica intersection, she had no idea what had happened. "Pop, flash, and I'm sitting there, and was like - what was that?" she thought.

Williams even thought it might have been gunfire, until she told some friends about her experience. You're about to get a traffic ticket, they told her. Two weeks later, the ticket arrived in the mail.

Although she paid the $380 fine, Williams went to trial to contest the ticket and eventually won her case after an appeal - by demonstrating that there was a traffic light malfunction at that intersection.

Williams says she is especially angry that the initial traffic court judge dismissed photo evidence she presented to support her own case. "She didn't want to hear anything I had to say. I was just guilty," Williams recalled.

Red light and speed traffic cameras seem to be popping up everywhere, saving law enforcement time and manpower and generating millions in revenue for cash-strapped states and municipalities. The cost of a camera citation is decided by state or local authorities.

In Los Angeles, a violation results in a $436 fine. Red light camera citations brought in $3.3 million in revenue in 2007, said Sgt. Matthew MacWillie of the LAPD, co-coordinator with the Los Angeles Dept. of Transportation of the city's red-light camera program. However, the city got less than half of each fine - the rest goes to the state and county.

The red light camera business is growing rapidly, vendors say.

Redflex, the largest vendor of red light cameras, has 1580 red light , speed, or combined red light-speed cameras operating in the United States. In 2008, the company made a net profit of $7.9 million, double the year before, said Cristina Weekes, Executive Vice President of Marketing at Redflex. American Traffic Systems, a Redflex competitor, operates more than 1,000 cameras in the U.S., and is expecting to install 500 more in the next few months.

But some red light camera critics, like Williams, and even lawmakers, are fighting back, saying the devices circumvent due process or even cause more crashes than they prevent. Some drivers are purchasing sprays that claim to block their license plate numbers so cameras can't "read" them. Websites like "highwayrobbery.net" and "cameraSCAN.com" post detailed arguments against the cameras, and some states are even considering banning them.

Georgia state Rep. Barry Loudermilk pushed through a law this year to regulate the use of the cameras in his state. Loudermilk says a better way to reduce accidents is to extend the length of the yellow warning light in traffic lights, by just one second - from the minimum three seconds required by federal law. At the Atlanta intersection of Freedom Parkway at Boulevard, cameras brought in $1.3 million from more than 49,000 in violations last year, Loudermilk said. Atlanta charges $75 per violation.

Loudermilk says some towns in Georgia who put up red light cameras shortened the length of time a light stays yellow to catch more red-light runners. So, he pushed through a law that requires lights in Georgia to stay yellow for a second longer, to more than four seconds.

Since the law took effect in January, at least three Georgia communities have decided to no longer use red light cameras, because they're not "cost effective."

Safety experts like Adrian Lund, President of the Insurance Institute for Highway safety, say red light cameras improve safety at intersections, by serving as a deterrent.

"Our overall position on red light cameras is that they are effective, they are saving lives by preventing people from disobeying the law," Lund told CNN.

Critics say the cameras increase rear-enders, because drivers tend to jam on their breaks trying to avoid a ticket.

Lund admits that after cameras are installed, there is a "smaller" increase in rear-end crashes, but says they are far less deadly than the "t-bone" collisions that occur when a car runs a red light and smashes into the side of a passing car.

And although Lund agrees that extending the yellow light time does have safety advantages, he says longer yellows don't reduce red light running as much as having the cameras installed.

In Los Angeles, Sgt. MacWillie says the camera program has steadily reduced crashes since its introduction in 2006. There have been no fatalities at intersections since the program began.

"If you're measuring the program by the goal - to reduce traffic collisions, it's working," MacWillie said.


Filed under: Controversy • Crime
soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. Johnny

    I got a red light ticket.. Long Beach California 7th street and Redondo... An already amazingly badly designed street(no left turn arrows, not left turn arrows, all yields) but it was either slam on my brakes- leaving flat spots on my tires, possibly being rear ended AND stop in the middle of the intersection, or go through SAFELY....

    Scamera tickets are just proof that BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.

    June 17, 2009 at 6:07 pm |
  2. Kerry Hunt

    To traffic engineer;
    The Scameras are unconstitutional. The Fifth amendment gives the accused the right to stand face to face with their accuser. I am sure the framers never imagined that a box full of technologically advanced electronic gadgetry would count as an accuser. Even if they had, I'm sure they would agree that it simply does not meet the standards that they had in mind for the 5th Amendment's due process clause.

    On this issue, I'm very proud of my state legislature for doing the right thing and banning the SCAMeras.

    May 6, 2009 at 1:51 pm |
  3. Kerry Hunt

    Welcome to Mississippi;
    Don't worry about the traffic Scameras, they aren't any. The Mississippi legislature has done its job and banned them. The one's that were already up have to be down by 10/2/2009

    Oh it may go court. I suspect the cameras will get the same result as the radar companies got when our state legislature initially took radar away from everyone before eventually giving it back to the highway patrol and cities/counties that met a minimum population requirement. That is the radar companies sued and lost.

    May 6, 2009 at 1:28 pm |
  4. Henry

    A couple notes for people who have tickets:

    1. The highwayrobbery site mentioned above is .net, not .com!

    2. If you have a red light camera ticket from California, you need to know about Snitch Tickets, which are fake red light camera tickets sent out by California police to bluff the registered owner into identifying the actual driver of the car. (In California, the police have to identify the actual driver.) Snitch Tickets have not been filed with the court, so they don't say "Notice to Appear," don't have the court's address and phone, and usually say (on the back, in small letters), "Do not contact the court about this notice." Since they have NOT been filed with the court, they have no legal weight whatsoever. You can ignore a Snitch Ticket. If in doubt, Google the term.

    May 5, 2009 at 2:12 pm |
  5. Traffic Engineer

    I really wish that we didn't need traffic cameras for red light running. But face this fact, the real issue is not the cameras or the revenue. The real issue is that local police no longer consider enforcing traffic laws a priority. Traffic fines are meant to be a deterrent to disobeying traffic control devices.
    Adding seconds to the yellow time is not the answer. Motorists simply think that's more time to run the light.
    If you don't want the traffic cameras then stop running the red lights. Else place local police back at the intersection. Either way, too many people are dying in intersections because some of us refuse to obey the traffic lights.

    May 5, 2009 at 8:48 am |
  6. Sanoran Triamesh

    Red Light cameras are purely for profit.
    In River Road, MaryLand, I got a ticket when I thought I was going through an Amber, which seemed to turn Red much faster. So later, i went back and timed the red lights on River Road, -sure enough the one with the Camera was slightly shorter. They are also usually well hidden, and never marked. If they were for safety, the camera's would be yellow. Nope, -they are money machines for sure. And they are unconstitutional too. When a policeman goes through, they don't get a ticket (by admission of the Montgomery County Police Chief in writing), although our constitution says we are equal under the law. The government of the people, by the people, for the people sure knows how to trick the people 🙂 –Sanoran Triamesh

    May 5, 2009 at 3:32 am |
  7. Ricky

    I live in Houston and have seen cameras take bad pictures on numerous occasions. One camera in particular that is located down the street from me routinely takes pictures when the intersection is completely empty. The people monitoring the camera shots can plainly see how many false alerts are happening but they aren't doing anything to fix the problem.

    The camera I'm speaking of has been broken for at least a year now. In fact, it took a picture of the intersection the other night while I was making a trip to get some food.

    May 5, 2009 at 2:44 am |
  8. Steve Davis

    Oh, I forgot to mention, these tickets, for not coming to a complete stop before turning right, were $450 each!

    May 5, 2009 at 2:02 am |
  9. Steve Davis

    My wife received 2 tickets a week apart. Never had a ticket or accident in her 56 years till these. She didn't know she got the first ticket and certainly would not have done the same thing again if she had known. One problem with the tickets is that you don't know you got the ticket until 2-3 weeks later. Immediate punishment is the most effective.

    They were both for failing to come to a complete stop on a right turn. At this intersection you can run the red light which is certainly more dangerous but the cameras are not set up to ticket this.

    Personally, I think these are money makers pure and simple. You can't tell me that failing to come to a complete stop for a right turn is more dangerous than running the red light at an intersection.

    May 5, 2009 at 1:58 am |
  10. Mike

    I think it is a more prudent and a better use of public tax dollars to install permanent cameras in critical areas, especially at stop signs rather than pay an officer to sit on the side of the road hoping to nab that unsuspecting motorist for what is, relatively speaking, a minor infraction, speeding and seat belts, merely to meet quotas. In reality it is more of a burdon on society and the court system than it is a beneficial service to the public, especially in these economic times.

    May 4, 2009 at 11:51 pm |
  11. Dave Ziffer

    I see people running red lights constantly. There is no excuse and these idiots are endangering my life with their selfish behavior. I don't believe for a minute that a countdown would help any ... if a person can't stop for a yellow light, why will he stop for a two ... one .. zero? The only thing the countdown lights will do is make every intersection more expensive.

    And puh-leez don't give me rain as an excuse. If you have half a brain, you should be driving slower in the rain. Heavens, next you'll be stomping your feet and demanding that we change the laws of physics, which obviously aren't fair enough for you.

    The only thing I'll agree with the complainers on here is that the yellows should be long enough to allow time for those situations where the light turns yellow at just the wrong moment. If somebody is intentionally shortening the yellows to enhance revenues, that person should be fired.

    Red-light runners, drunks, cell phone chatters, groomers, speeders, and others who aren't bright enough to grasp that they're piloting an instrument of death need to be off the road. Period. And if they won't stay off the road after we've revoked their licenses, they should be in jail.

    More cameras, more enforcement, bigger fines, and fair yellows, please!

    May 4, 2009 at 11:23 pm |
  12. Arthur Tait

    Photo tickets are prosecution for profit, plain and simple. Safety is improved through proper traffic engineering. Red light cameras and photo radar take advantage of poor traffic engineering to generate revenue from trapped drivers (cops call this "cherry picking", like speed traps). Set the yellow lights at 5.6 seconds and red light running stops almost completely. Those that run red light after that point are usually driving too intoxicated or too oblivous to be deterred by any law enforcement method.

    Don't replace good cops with computers. We need good, honest cops out there who can make judgment calls. We wrote more on our website at http://www.trafficfighters.com/case_types/photo_tickets.html
    but write your representative. Tell them to stop placating the insurance companies – we want better traffic engineering and smart law enforcement. Not prosecution for profit.

    May 4, 2009 at 9:43 pm |
  13. Ripped off in TX

    I've been burned because my wife was the driver, but I'm the title holder? So I received the ticket. The length of time on the yellow light at this intersection is 3.4 seconds. At 40 MPH posted speed it takes 164 feet to stop. You do the math!

    May 4, 2009 at 9:43 pm |
  14. Dave

    So many people whining about these red light cameras. Guess what – running red lights is against the law!!!! A-GAINST-THE-LAW. You're not supposed to do it yet all the red light running morons who don't care who they hurt or kill are whining that it's entrapment and blah blah. These are the people that love that the police are not doing their jobs and handing out citations, so now you cant get away with it and you dont like it. TOO BAD. Dont want a fine – stop running the reds.

    May 4, 2009 at 8:52 pm |
  15. Travis

    It's just another money grab for localities. If these cameras are truly for safety, then the community should return the money to the citizens at large in the form of a tax cut. If the camera makes 1.3 million a year, then local real estate taxes should drop that year by 1.3 million minus the cost of operating the cameras. Safety would improve and local government wouldn't make any money!

    May 4, 2009 at 8:48 pm |
  16. Kevin- Las Cruces, NM

    When I am pulling a 28' gooseneck horse trailer with three horses inside, total length of rig about 40', total weight about 15,000 pounds, I'm NOT gonna slam on my brakes for a yellow light and risk a skid or throwing horses around, possibly knocking them off their feet. That's why I bought one of the lexan plastic fresnel lens type photo blocker for the trailer. And only for the trailer, because that's the only time I won't try to stop. In the truck without the trailer, or any of our other vehicles, I will stop.

    But here in NM, the "crime" is a civil offense, not a criminal offense. So you are denied any of that "innocent until proven guilty" or "the right to confront your accusers" nonsense spelled out in the Bill of Rights....

    May 4, 2009 at 8:27 pm |
  17. bc

    Slamming on the brakes? Stopping on a dime? What's wrong with driving in such a manner that you CAN stop in time when the light is changing. Let's be honest. People just plain don't want to stop at all for a light if they can run it. Any driver can see ahead when a light has been green for a time before they approach that is it about to change–and that also includes the drivers behind you. How stupid do you think you sound when you try to convince a judge that you didn't want to stop and cause rear-end collision with the car that was following you who also didn't want to stop for the red light? Just what would you do if you had to stop suddenly because a child or animal appeared in front of you? According to your explanations justifying running a red light, you would just have to hid that child or animal because you didn't want to cause a rear-end collision.

    May 4, 2009 at 7:59 pm |
  18. JOHNSON

    NO doubt this is a source of money for the cities. Dangerous and
    costly $500.00 (Long Beach, Ca.) plus traffic school where I was
    lectured on being kind to illegals and they have rights by a Mexican
    ex-cop who owns and runs the traffic school. It was unbelievable
    we had to sing songs. The danger is the flashing lights in your face
    I saw nothing for a few seconds (seemed like minutes) plus the
    light was just a second of yellow – giving me no time to react and
    if I did – I would have caused a chain reaction behind me.
    THIS IS A VERY BAD IDEA AND A DANGEROUS ONE BESIDES
    BEING A FIXED SET OF LIGHTS. Because the cities are so hungry
    for money – you will never win against a judge – money for all around.

    May 4, 2009 at 7:48 pm |
  19. Dennis

    I think the cameras are great! I am tired of dodging those idiots that feel they do not need to stop for a yellow/red light. For those who cannot afford the ticket, don't run the red lights – simple unless you are an idiot. Learn to drive and save your money and lives.

    May 4, 2009 at 7:40 pm |
  20. Stephen R. Collier

    The focus behind programs like the traffic cameras needs to be solely on enforcing safe behavior. There should be absolutely no dependence on these programs making a minimum amount of money. Punishing offenders by charging them fines is legitimate, but it should never be about making money.

    Science should determine what behaviors are dangerous and only the people that act dangerously should be punished. Just because a light is red, doesn't necessarily mean that going through it is dangerous. They may very well clear the intersection before it's possible for someone on the crossing street to be able to hit them. The cameras should be programmed to make sure that they only determine fines for drivers who go through the light so late that there's a possibility of collision.

    If longer yellow light times will increase safety then that should be done first. There's no reason to put people through legal troubles and increase the work load of our legal system if we don't need to.

    Traffic lights are there for safety, not for making money, not for just randomly telling people when to go and when not to go and punishing them for the slightest infraction. Red light traffic cameras are a good idea and a good safety tool if used properly.

    Stephen
    Virginia Beach

    May 4, 2009 at 7:13 pm |
  21. leslie

    There is no question the red light camera are to increase revenue. If the cities really wanted to prevent accidents and deaths, and be fair that there are occasions when a driver has to make a spit decision to stop or risk a ticket, then they should delay the light. For example, the light going east to west is changing to red, then the traffic going north and south, would be delayed an extra second before changing to green. This would prevent accidents because cars would have time to clear the intersection.

    May 4, 2009 at 7:02 pm |
  22. David Roussain

    Red light cameras should be on every intersection. Why? Drivers that run red lights kill and injure thousands of people every year. Read your local accident statistics available from your police departments.

    My wife was broadsided at over 30 mph by a pickup that ran a red light. The impact was so severe that it lifted herJeep Grand Cherokee into the air and it collided sideway into the vehicle on her immediate right, resulting in a total loss of both vehicles. We were very lucky that side airbags and her use of seatbelts that saved her life.

    A yellow light means stop, not accelerate, through an intersection. There is plenty of time to stop if you drive defensively.

    May 4, 2009 at 6:57 pm |
  23. Tracy Scholman

    We love red light cameras in NYC as deterents to those who would run the light. We should have more of them! Our older kids walk to school and cross street after street on the way. We see drivers plow through intersections after the walk signs say go. It's terrifying for parents and children. Keep those cameras flashing.

    May 4, 2009 at 6:56 pm |
  24. WhatsHappening?

    Seriously, I love how everything is blamed on the economy – Oh tough times here there and everywhere... If you were so concerned then slow down and stop at the red light! No fine, done.
    Everyone does nothing but blame everyone else in this society – take some responsibility for yourself and follow the law, simple.

    May 4, 2009 at 6:51 pm |
  25. Eugene V. Resnick

    I know that I would be angry if I got caught by a red light camera, but let's face it folks–the law is the law. It is illegal to go through red lights. It is also dangerous. We all speed up when we see a yellow light, but we also know it is dangerous and wrong. This is a law designed to protect us, our fellow drivers, and pedestrians. Let us save the "big brother" talk for real, serious breaches of privacy. This is a good program that has demonstrably saved lives and calmed our roads.

    May 4, 2009 at 6:46 pm |
  26. rob

    I have noticed that yellows are shorter now. I think they are shortening the time yellows last and that makes it hard for a driver to know how long they have to slow down or go thru the interestion. I think it does make it unsafe. If they are going to have camera's I think that they should give us more time to clear the intersection. Also, $400 for a ticket is crazy. If the yellow lasts for a short time it is real hard to slam on the brakes to stop in time not to go through the intersection. And you just don't expect the yellow to last for only a few seconds. I am used to having time to make it through when a yellow happens. The timing has been getting shorter and making things less safe. You just don't know how long they will last and you don't get anough notice to react to stop in time. So you are going to run those short yellows and possibly get a ticket for a red light. It is unfair.

    May 4, 2009 at 6:34 pm |
  27. Eric Roberts

    oh yeah...you can contest this by paying a $25 administrative fee. I guess that means justice only goes to people who have the money to pay for it. The rest of us schleps just get screwed. Since when does the law make you pay to defend yourself. What happened to innocent until proven guilty?

    May 4, 2009 at 6:28 pm |
  28. Eric Roberts

    Unfortunately there is no due process here. There was an article in the Aurora Beacon (IL) about how one court session, everyone was pronouced guilty by an administrative law judge (instead of a criminal judge) regardless of what evidence or common sense showed that the people were innocent. The judge, in violation of his oath of office, didn't want to hear a word of what these people said and was only interested in robbing them of thier money. This is tantamount to state sponsored piracy. This is nothing but a scam by local governments to rake in more cash. This has little to do with saftey and everything to do with the almighty dollar. This practice needs to be abolished. Welcome to the police state folks...seig heil!

    May 4, 2009 at 6:26 pm |
  29. Cory Townsend

    doesnt this constitute entrapment? they are puttin in these devices, and specifally shortening light time lengths. this is wrong on so many levels. people use to the normal amount of time can miss jusdge due to the shorter duration. causing more problems. and like the article says, what about prosecuters and district attorneys that dnt care if the machine is faulty. u better believe if i had evidence showin that i wasnt at fault for a 500 hundred dollar ticket, that i would raise hell!!! and i promise if this geta outa hand plp will do one of 2 things, destroy them or paint over the monitor.........

    May 4, 2009 at 6:22 pm |
  30. Mike

    My wife's gotten two of these tickets, $90 and $100. This is purely for money, not for safety. The one it was raining, so she didn't want to slam on the brakes – no other cars even moved. The other, the intersection was gridlocked, and she went right on red without completely stopping.

    I saw a semi-truck almost rear-end a car that slammed on the brakes, the truck was actually bouncing and went partly off the road.

    I complained to the village when I saw lights installed at another intersection – they were flashing all the time blinding me, still in calibration/test mode. The thing that kills me at that intersection is there is no right green arrow. The cross traffic has a long left-turn green arrow at a wide-angle intersection. There is even a right turn bay, but the light is red and you have to come to a full and complete stop even though it is impossible for there to even be any cars coming due to the left turners. The police chief wrote back – I remember when you couldn't even turn right on red even after stopping. Great, and we used to ride horses, too. Accidents have continuously decreased since the 1960s – drivers are better, cars are better. The lights and markings are more consistent. Putting these cameras up is not for safety – it is purely for money.

    If they want to improve safety – put count down numbers next to the yellow – if you blink, you don't know exactly when it turned yellow. And, add the right turn green arrows when the cross traffic has left green arrows.

    May 4, 2009 at 5:47 pm |