Red-Light Losers

One city pulls the plug on intersection cameras after they fail to produce revenue.
by | June 16, 2011

Traffic scofflaws in Los Angeles can breathe even easier. The city's police commission has decided to abandon its multiyear deployment of automated photographic traffic enforcement at busy intersections. The decision -- and its safety and revenue implications -- will be studied closely in other cities across the nation.

As a once-wayward motorist caught in motion by one of these cameras, I began following this story last year. The local newspaper had reported that the county courts were not enforcing the tickets beyond sending a second notice, and the city controller reported that they were losing money on the system. Unlike us dutiful citizens who paid the fines, thousands of drivers thumbed their noses at the local justice system as word spread that they bore no risk of losing their driver licenses over these tickets -- as would be the case in other jurisdictions. So it did not surprise me to learn that the Los Angeles system was actually losing money, unlike other cities where these red-light cameras are moneymakers for the government. Nothing could be more aggravating to upright ticket-paying taxpayers than to subsidize a financial loss because of a systemwide failure to discipline the most negligent offenders.

The other side of this story is the public safety angle. Apparently the vast majority of L.A.'s intersection stoplight infractions are right-turn-on-red violations. Reportedly, the number of head-on T-bone intersection accidents was reduced by these photo-enforcement systems, but at the cost of more rear-end accidents from drivers slamming on their brakes to avoid a ticket when they saw the camera. I claim no expertise in these matters, and leave the evidentiary arguments to others far more qualified than myself on such issues.

What I can say, however, is that it's pretty clear that one, the public resents these camera systems generally as a Big Brother intrusion, two, the case for their use as a safety enhancement is somewhat mixed now that we've had some experience and three, they can actually be costly if the courts and DMV will not enforce the fines. If local government is America's "laboratory for democracy," the L.A. experience is only one petri dish. I'm sure that there must be another city somewhere that is making money on these enforcement systems and can prove decisively that accidents are mitigated -- such is the nature of American civic diversity. Incidentally, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is looking at Washington D.C.'s use of "sweepercams" installed on garbage trucks to document parking violators, which has the unions all riled up because it would be an obvious cost- and job-cutter.

If your community has a success or a horror story to share, feel free to comment below.

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