Study: Outsourcing Red-Light Cameras Puts Profits Before Safety

Nearly 700 communities have contracted companies to operate them.

Photo: iStockphoto
About one in five Americans live in a municipality that outsources operation of its automated red-light cameras to for-profit companies, a study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found, and those relationships could be putting profits ahead of public safety.

Roughly half of the 50 states have authorized red-light cameras, the study reported, and nearly 700 communities have contracted private companies to install and operate them. Another 92 municipalities have outsourced automated speed-limit enforcement cameras.

The contracts between communities and these operators can be problematic, the report concluded. Often, cities and towns are required to share revenue with companies, either on a per-ticket basis or through some other formula. In Suffolk County, New York, half of its revenue from red-light camera tickets is handed over to the camera vendor.

Those contracts can also be costly for municipal governments to terminate. When Houston voters elected to end its red-light camera program in 2010, the vendor claimed the city owed $25 million for ending the contract early. In San Bernardino, Calif., when the city decided to pull out of its red-light camera contract in 2011, the company tried to impose a $1.8 million penalty for early termination.

Red-light camera vendors have also obstructed efforts to improve public safety, according to U.S. PIRG. Lengthening the duration of yellow-light signals typically leads to the number of accidents, and violations, but in the case of four California cities, their contracts include financial penalties if city engineers attempt to extend the yellow signal. Other contracts require municipal police to meet a certain quota of tickets, which forces officers to issue more than they otherwise might, the report said.

Dylan Scott is a GOVERNING staff writer.