Red Light Cameras: Public Safety or Government Revenue?

Photo (cc) by Horia Varlan

There’s a red light camera a block away from where I live. Haunting and taunting me. Just waiting to snag me.

Red light cameras have infested Ventura, Calif. About 20 of them oversee this beach community, one of the first to install such technology. The photos could very well be your most pricey portrait at about $500 a pop.

Angry debate over the legality of the cameras is ongoing. Many argue they violate a person’s right to due process. Others say the technology fails to increase safety to motorists and pedestrians, supposedly a key feature of the programs.

Even if you don’t live in a community utilizing red light cameras, there’s a good chance you’ll visit one; more than 500 cities and towns have them in place. In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson delves into the controversial programs. Then read on for more information.

Just a few days ago, I witnessed a near collision in a camera-monitored intersection. A driver entered it just as the light turned red and slammed on his brakes in an attempt not to get caught, leaving him smack-dab in the middle of the crossroads.

Would it have been safer for him to have simply continued through the intersection, without fear of getting ticketed? Who knows.

But consider that San Diego city officials ultimately abandoned their cameras in February after realizing the program had failed to quell public safety issues. It was adopted in 1998.

Roughly 20,000 motorists a year received tickets in the mail during the cameras’ reign, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“Seems to me that such a program can only be justified if there are demonstrable facts that prove that they raise the safety awareness and decrease accidents in our city,” San Diego Mayor Bob Filner said. “The data, in fact, does not really prove it.”

The Federal Highway Administration says the technology reduces right-angle crashes with injuries by 15%. But the same study found rear-end accidents with injuries increase by 24%.

San Diego’s mayor also said the cameras bred disrespect for the law and distrust among people who thought they were only there to generate revenue for the city.

Other California cities, like Los Angeles, Pasadena and Glendale, have scrapped the cameras. But, Ventura and others keep them clicking despite the arguments.

How it works

The cameras send pictures of violations taken at different angles and sometimes a short video to the service provider, where they are processed. Eventually, police sift through the photos and determine if a citation should be issued.

According to the Ventura County Star, Ventura police say they mail a ticket only when the photos show that a violation has been committed and that the driver is the registered owner of the car. They check to see whether the driver’s license photo of the car’s registered owner matches the photo of the driver taken by the red light camera. In Ventura, citations are issued about half the time.

What can you do?

If you get cited, you can contest the ticket. Here are some tips:

  • Acquire a photo of the alleged violation. Some cities mail a photo with your ticket, while in others you must make a special request. Examine both the ticket to ensure the information is correct and the photo to make sure the driver looks like you, Nolo says. Can the license plate be read clearly?
  • Read the applicable state law. The wording differs in each state, but generally prosecutors must prove you were identified as the driver and you disobeyed a traffic signal in that county, FindLaw says. In most instances, the driver of the vehicle, not the car’s owner, is liable for the ticket. One exception is New York, where red light violations are treated like parking citations and are the vehicle owner’s responsibility.

Now you’re ready to explore possible defenses:

  • Nolo suggests you ask the judge to toss the photos if an employee from the camera company doesn’t show up to authenticate the evidence. If the judge agrees, the prosecution has no case.
  • If the images are not clear, argue that the evidence is not convincing enough.
  • Running a red light to avoid a serious accident and injury is acceptable in some states.
  • Inadequate signage may be another argument for dismissal of the ticket. Return to the scene and see if the signs comply with the law. “If they don’t, and you prove that to the court with photos and diagrams, you have a good chance of beating the ticket,” says Nolo.

Debate continues

The argument over the effectiveness and fairness of red light cameras goes on wherever they’re still in use. Recently, Chicago’s program — which produced $71 million in revenue last year — was criticized in an audit by Chicago’s Office of Inspector General, says CNSNews.com.

“If the intent of the [red light camera] program is to increase safety and reduce the number of dangerous angle crashes, it is troubling that CDOT cannot produce documentation or an analysis demonstrating how each camera location was chosen … ,” the audit said.

Are there red light cameras where you live? Do you think they’re useful in preventing accidents or an easy source of city revenue? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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