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Red light cameras: Safety or simply revenue?

Some cities have dropped cameras as a traffic law enforcement tool, saying their effectiveness has been questionable.

By MSN Money Partner Jun 12, 2013 11:34AM

This post comes from Angela Brandt at partner site Money Talks News.

MoneyTalksNews logoThere'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.

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, including Los Angeles, Pasadena and Glendale, have scrapped the cameras. But, Ventura and others keep them clicking despite the arguments.

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.


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.

Traffic © Pixtal, SuperStock

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," Nolo says

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 (.pdf file), says

"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 below.

More on Money Talks News:
Jun 12, 2013 3:15PM
  the problem started when the police stopped being a  public safety organization and began a profit center for the cities. break the money cycle and it will  return to a safe and fair enforcement system
Jun 12, 2013 3:14PM

it is my opinion that these camera are intended to PRIMARILY generate money for the jurisdiction that has them.

we had them here in Houston, and we ( the voters) forced their shutdown!

Jun 12, 2013 3:00PM

Here's a case study for you.  About 10 years ago we had red light cameras around Greensboro, NC.  A lot of people complained about getting unwarranted tickets - a guy I worked with got one in the mail, and the picture clearly showed that the light was yellow.  But it wasn't malfunctions or public complaints that killed our red light cameras.  It turned out that the enacted legislation required that a high percentage of the collected fines had to go to the school system, but it wasn't so the schools sued.  Plus, the State also wanted a cut.  They couldn't afford to pay the school system and State and the contracting company (who installed and maintained the cameras, as well as handled the paperwork including fining violators – yet another questionable legal practice).  So they scrapped the program.


It doesn’t sound like safety was the true motivator here – money was.
Jun 12, 2013 3:38PM
A recent local TV report in Tampa revealed that the state DOT allowede the yellow timing to be reduced by betwee 0.2 and 0.6 seconds.  That was enough to double their revenue generation.  There are engineering formulas that determine the length of yellow signals that are dependent on the speed limit.  By reducing the yellow time you increase the number of violations.  Studies have show that from a "safet" perspective, adding up to a half second in yellow time is a better reducer of accidents.  Also, in areas with lots of tourist and /or elederly drivers the prudent thing to do is to add time to the yellow cycle.  But then, this does not generate any revenue, which, no matter what they say about safety, is the real reason for the cameras.  Just follow the money.  Just follow the money.  And now they are talking about speed cameras to "generate revenue", I mean for safety LOL.
Jun 12, 2013 3:19PM
These are total money grabs, I avoid these intersections simply because where I live if I had to pay $300 bucks for simply missing a light I would quit driving. We don't have a lot of them but I have altered my routes and don't go near them, they are squeezing the life out of me from every other direction, while my wages have stagnated so I'm not going to drive right into more money out of my pocket. Rear-end accidents here all the time as people hammer on the binders to avoid the ticket.
Jun 12, 2013 3:34PM
Cash cows, oh heck yes!!!.  Most people won't even fight a ticket, none the less a photo ticket.  These cameras should be illegal and all taken down.   On these you are guilty until proven innocent.
Jun 12, 2013 3:43PM

The safety argument is ridiculous.  At the intersections that have cameras in Chicago, accidents have actually increased.  Paranoid drivers now either increase speed, or slam on their brakes attempting to avoid $100.00 ticket!


Citizens of Chicago end up paying for the abuses of corrupt politicians and decision makers.

Jun 12, 2013 3:50PM
One thing I've noticed after my research after being nailed by one it that the yellow cycle was WELL below the National Highway recommended times.  SURE it's about safety.  That's why the companies selling them to local cities presentation covers mainly how much they can produce.
Jun 12, 2013 3:39PM

These cameras are a cash-cow for the companies that make and install them, not the municipalities that are supposed to benefit. The cities that have dropped them may give a statement about "distrust" or respect for the law, but it all comes down to $. The cameras will click law-breakers, but they wil also cite a lawful right turn on red. I recieved such a ticket in San Bernardino and despite it being a 2 hour drive from my home, chose to fight the ticket. On my court day there were over 100 people there to deal with photo-tickets (dozens from the same intersection where I got mine).  We all got our chance to review the video evidence with an officer. And one by one almost everyone was dismissed. So the city pays a clerk, a specially trained sherriff's officer, and support staff to spend all day disposing of faulty citations (a handful were upheld). Within a year that camera was gone. The programs get sold to the cities as a potential revenue stream, but the programs end up being losers.

Jun 12, 2013 3:23PM
I got one in orange county about 7 years back, I'm from pittsburgh visiting family and friends. It happened in a rental card and i did not get the ticket for 5 or 6 months later.  $340 that they would suspend my license or show up in court. of course i had to pay it. they got you by the balls.**** them cameras, i wish i could have fought it. Just another way for the goverment to get in your pocket. 
Jun 12, 2013 3:57PM

The fact that they are run by 'for profit companies' who give a cut of the ticket to the town is the real crime.


If you get a $75 ticket in the mail... the local government is likely only being paid a small portion of that... say $8-20!   That's the real scam.  If more people realized that, the anger would be much much higher.

Jun 12, 2013 3:27PM
Any kind of spy camera sucks watching every move one makes - can't even pick your nose in private anymore! Legal thieves gouging the public once again as if we don't pay enough tgrumped up taxes.  Plus rogue cops are out there anyway and should be enough to do their job - every city/town has way too many of em.   Remove the cameras - it takes what few rights citizens still have away.  Next they'll figure out how to tax the air we breathe by how much we weigh - fat people need more air.  Small government is worse than big brother government and neither one should talk; bigger law breakers than all of us peasants put together!!    
Jun 12, 2013 3:54PM
Its all a scam, and if you want to fight a ticket they will make it a pain the in the @ss for you do it. Cops in my town don't do anything but give tickets, and now we have cameras doing it so what will they do to take my tax money now? When I was 20 and had my first apartment, someone tried to break in the back door. I called the cops, they showed up 45 min later and where pissed at me that the person had left. Then they wanted to search my place to try and bust me for something. PURE SCUM never call the police for help
Jun 12, 2013 3:51PM
They are money makers. No more no less. Just like a speed traps back east. Speed traps are now elegal.

Our AZ freeways had them for about 3 1/2 years and were removed. There wasn't any legal way to make any one to pay for them. Some of our own government officials told us not to pay the fine.

Jun 12, 2013 3:43PM
The District of Columbia has a hidden speed camera on I-295.  There is no warning and sparse indications of the speed limit on that interstate which is 50 mph.  The fine is $125. 

Why is it on an interstate?  The mayor laments that the cameras are not making enough money because people have slowed down and they stop for red lights.  He could care less about cutting accidents. Hence, the real reason for an extensive camera network is for money, look up DC traffic cameras.

One of the reasons the Supreme Court will likely rule traffic cameras illegal is that the companies installing the cameras get a cut of the action, a conflict of interest.

Jun 12, 2013 3:41PM

When a driver on her cell phone ran a red light and I t-boned her, I seriously doubt having a red light camera at the intersection would have PREVENTED the accident.  If you are going to be irresponsible, a camera cannot stop that. 


Also, anyone driving knows that sometimes you think you have enough time and you go through the light just as it turns.  Often, no harm, no foul.  An officer seeing this happen would use good judgement.  Since the camera has NO LOGICAL JUDGMENT, you get a ticket.  I got one for being 1.5 seconds past the light when I was caught in the middle of an intersection trying to turn left.  Really???? 

Jun 12, 2013 3:38PM
It's against the law if you run a yellow light,read the manual.Also if you come to a red light and make a right turn...if your wheels are moving also get a ticket.My opinion is it's a money trap.So come back here and complain,when you get your ticket.So when you get hit in the rear,when the person isn't paying attention.just complain.
Jun 12, 2013 4:37PM
Pure greed is the ONLY reason these are still around. St. Louis City still has them...idiots.
Jun 12, 2013 3:59PM
as I said to the ct.g.op was if someone pleads not guilty they can't have a cameras as witness, you will need a person as witness besides cameras can be manipulated just as in t.v. commercials when a baby speaks it's not real but looks real. people must pleade not guilty on the grounds of no policeman seen me do the supposed traffic violation a machine did. theres no way that can go to trial
Jun 12, 2013 6:20PM
Just look at the posts every time this subject comes up. Over 90% of us don't want these things, so why do they still exist? Just another example of the government not being held in check by the people.
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