Study: Use red-light cameras for safety, not cash

Outsourcing traffic enforcement to red-light and speed camera vendors can spell trouble for municipalities, according to a new report from a consumer watchdog group.

The report by the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) finds that about half the states have enabled use of automated traffic cameras, letting local governments contract with private companies to install the equipment and issue citations. But citizens have often objected to privatized forms of traffic enforcement and many municipalities have found themselves in legal trouble when they attempt to change or update these contracts, the report says.

Engineering alternatives, such as lengthening yellow lights, are often the best way to reduce injuries from red-light running, the report says, but such solutions often get short shrift from ticket revenue-hungry contractors and municipalities.

“Automated traffic ticketing tends to be governed by contracts that focus more on profits than safety,” CALPIRG Legislative Director Pedro Morillas said. “Too often, local governments are taken for a ride by red-light camera vendors overly focused on their bottom line instead of public safety.”

State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, authored a bill this year that would’ve reformed the use of traffic cameras by requiring local governments to post signs near where the cameras are installed; develop uniform guidelines for screening and issuing tickets from the cameras; make formal fact-findings to justify future installations; to ignore revenue, beyond the system’s own costs, when considering whether to install such systems; and so on.

SB 29 had overwhelming bipartisan support, approved by the Assembly on a 70-4 vote and by the state Senate on a 38-0 vote. Yet Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill this month, writing that installation and maintenance of such camera systems “is something that can and should be overseen by local elected officials” without state interference.

But CALPIRG’s report recommends stronger guidelines to ensure that automated traffic enforcement programs focus on improving road safety, not ticket revenue. It says contracts between local governments should carefully compare cameras with alternatives, and their contracts with vendors should be scrutinized for conflicts of interest or any direct or indirect incentives for vendors based on the volume of tickets issued or fines collected. Public control over traffic policy and engineering decisions must be retained, the report says, and the contract process should be completely transparent and open, including public participation and information about finding online data on automated ticketing for each intersection.

“We’ve already run into controversy over the use of red-light cameras here in California,” Morillas said. “We need to learn from past mistakes to keep our roadways from becoming ATMs for private companies.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • For a comprehensive look at the red-light camera scams, check out the website for the National Motorists Association, http://www.motorists.org. These cameras not only generate lots of money (mostly from relatively safe right-turn-on-red violations),they have been shown to actually increase accident rates. In every instance where the cameras have been put to a vote of the people, the cameras were voted down. They are now banned in some 15 states, as well as many cities, such as Los Angeles and Houston.

  • Felipe Aguirre

    We did away with those cameras lights in our city of
    Maywood because they were a drain our our limited resources did not raise much revenue and the money all belong s to the outside contractors

  • Henry

    Brown vetoed Simitian’s bill – for good reason! It claimed to be red light camera reform, but actually would have made it worse for drivers. For example, it would have decreased the number of warning signs at camera enforced intersections.

    But not all is good. Brown signed Mike Gatto’s AB 529, which will allow cities to reduce posted speeds by 5 mph, even on streets with a great safety record. Gatto’s bill will allow cities to shorten yellows, which will increase red light cam ticketing by at least 50%. (Four of the sponsoring cities have red light cams.) Worse, the shortening will increase severe accidents by 30 to 40%. (Source: “Development of Guidelines for Treating Red-Light Running,” Texas Transp. Inst. pg 2-20.)

    The lower speed limits also will make it easier for California cities to issue speeding tickets – and is groundwork for future legislation legalizing speed cameras (photo radar, like they have in Arizona).

    Mr. Gatto is very proud of his legislation. It is only fitting that the new speed traps should be called Gatto Traps, with the new shorter yellows called Gatto Yellows.

  • Brian Ceccarelli

    The reason why red light camera companies exist in the first place, is because they exploit a physics error in the formula the government uses to set yellow light durations. Enforcing the CalTrans standard is like enforcing a law forbidding gravity. Everyone is guilty.

  • Azmie Madanat

    We encourage you to explore the following link:

    This idea is currently being studied by the Texas Transportation Institute and is in its final stages. The TTI researcher states “These innovative traffic control devices are providing positive impact on safety in reducing red-light running…”

    Check it out.