By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org
Red light cameras have generated millions in revenue for towns and cities across the country, but they’ve brought plenty of controversy, too.
More than 500 municipalities are using red light cameras, which have proliferated, as have efforts to limit or ban them.
But opponents are learning the cameras, like many government programs, are difficult to shut down.
In Colorado, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers supported a bill to shutter the state’s automatic enforcement camera program, including red light and speed cameras. Armed with a scathing audit that revealed serious flaws with the camera program in Denver and the support of the speaker of the House and other legislative leaders, state Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Weld, thought he was on the brink of success.
Ultimately, his effort fell short.
Renfroe’s bill mustered only enough votes to pass the Senate. A House committee gutted the bill and instead called for a statewide study of existing red light camera programs, but even that version failed to cross the finish line before the session ended.
Even if it had passed, Gov. John Hickenlooper didn’t indicate he would sign it.
“It was no secret the governor did not want to make a decision on this bill and, sadly for the citizens of Colorado, he convinced enough House Democrats to kill a bill that places raising revenue above public safety,” said state Rep. Steve Humphrey, R-Severance, who sponsored the House version of the bill.
Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino, a Democrat like Hickenlooper, said he was disappointed with the outcome.
The 10 cities in Colorado with red light camera programs are a small portion of the 503 communities that use the devices, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Only nine states have bans on their use.
Support for and opposition to red light cameras tends to cross party lines. Small government Republicans and libertarian-leaning progressives have teamed up to fight the cameras in other states, too.
But support for red light camera programs comes from a collection of powerful interests. In Colorado, law enforcement groups wanted the cameras to stay, mayors from nine cities wrote a letter urging lawmakers to oppose the ban and companies that make them have employed teams of lobbyists.
Similar coalitions defeated legislation that would have banned red light cameras in Florida and Ohio.
That’s part of the reason critics of red light cameras, like John Bowman, say they won’t solve problems at unsafe intersections.
“Looking at standard traffic engineering practices, and making sure the intersections comply with those practices is really the way to go,” said Bowman, spokesman for the National Motorists Association. “But that also decreases the number of violations that are generated, which cuts into the revenue for the camera companies and the municipalities that use them.”
In some cases, municipalities have gone even further to take advantage of the cameras. A Watchdog.org investigation in Virginia last year found Virginia Beach was shortening the timing of yellow lights to generate more revenue from red light violations.
David Kelly, executive director of the National Coalition for Safer Roads, a nonprofit funded in part by a company that makes red light camera systems, doesn’t try to downplay some of the high-profile issues red light cameras have raised in certain cities.
But on the whole, he argues, they make roads safer.
“Traffic safety camera systems have been a successful tool for folks who are designing safety programs in their cities,” Kelly said. “These systems are saving lives and reducing crashes.”
He points to Roosevelt Avenue in Philadelphia, where the city installed cameras at two intersections in 2004 as part of an overall strategy to make the road safer after State Farm named it one of the most dangerous places in the county to drive. Since then, accidents at the intersections have declined.
In places such as Denver and Virginia Beach, where problems have been identified, local officials should make changes to ensure safety is the top priority, Kelly said.
“It’s important to go in and not say, ‘Let’s just get rid of the entire program,’ but fix the individual problems,” Kelly said. “Make adjustments to it.”
Critics say local governments have little incentive to fix those problems because cameras generate much-needed revenue.
In Denver, the city government has yet to make any changes to its red light camera program, even after a 2011 audit questioned the cameras’ effectiveness.
“Because these programs were sold as public safety enhancements but are widely viewed as a cash grab, it undermines public trust to maintain photo enforcement programs that are profitable but whose safety impact has not been conclusively shown,” wrote city auditor Dennis Gallagher at the time.
But Denver has continued to collect revenue — more than $1.3 million during 2013 alone — from the cameras. Red light cameras in nine other Colorado cities brought in another $6.6 million for local governments’ coffers.
“Municipalities that use them get addicted to the revenue,” said Bowman.
Jenny Robinson, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, which has examined red light camera programs across several states, said the devices aren’t fundamentally good or bad. Like any machine, it depends on how they’re used.
Robinson said AAA has a set of guidelines to determine whether cities are using red light cameras for revenue or safety purposes, though the two goals often intersect.
Cities should pay vendors a flat fee instead of a per-ticket fee, which removes any incentive for the red light camera companies to increase the number of tickets. They should also use the cameras sparingly, as part of an overall crash reduction plan that targets specific intersections and is used with other traffic engineering efforts.
“The equipment has to be tested, we have to know that it is accurate,” Robinson said. “The governments that operate these camera programs need to be continually testing and monitoring, and they should be making that information available to the public.”
State legislatures have made little progress in killing the cameras, but voters have opposed them 28 out of the 31 times the issue appeared on a local ballot.
Boehm can be reached at [email protected] and follow @WatchdogOrg on Twitter for more.