Rethinking Red Light Cameras

Local governments all across the country are falling victim to the siren song of surveillance cameras to raise cash from lead-footed motorists.

The money just comes rolling in to the D.C. coffers, from the bevy of red light cameras installed at city intersections over the past few years. Unfortunately, like the song in “Evita,” whatever money comes rolling in to the D.C. government, goes rolling out at least as quickly. But that’s another story.

The story here is the growing popularity of surveillance cameras to nab red light runners and speeders. The devices are popular for local governments because of the revenue they bring in; some $2.3 million to the District government in one recent month alone.

Despite the effusive protestations by D.C. officials that their surveillance cameras are for public safety only and have — harrumph — nothing whatever to do with raising revenue, common sense and the placement of the cameras not in the most dangerous intersections but rather in the most heavily traveled in order to maximize fines, tells the story. It is all about money.

Local governments all across the country are falling victim to the siren song of surveillance cameras to raise cash from lead-footed motorists. Even in my home state of Georgia — which once fought a war in an effort to minimize government control over the lives of individual citizens — local governments are rushing to install the electronic eyes.

The love of revenue-producing electronic devices knows no partisan bounds; local officials of Republican persuasion are just as quick — if not quicker — to install these intrusive but profitable devices as their Democrat counterparts.

Abroad, the pattern is the same. Governments with the technologic knowhow to appreciate the power of surveillance cameras and which have funds to purchase them are scurrying to do so. London has become the surveillance capital of the world; a city in which the average person’s visage is recorded hundreds of times every day they set foot in the city.

New York, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles are not far behind. War-torn Baghdad is becoming an experimental site for the next generation of surveillance camera technology — such as the Combat Zones That See project — which probably will soon find its way into the civilian sectors of America.

Two new studies, however, raise serious questions about not only the usefulness, but the safety, of installing and using surveillance cameras to enforce traffic regulations.

The first study,by North Carolina A&T State University’s Transportation Institute, concluded after extensive analysis, that the 18 red light cameras in use on Greensboro thoroughfares may very well cause more accidents rather than fewer. According to the study, while wrecks overall were found to be decreasing, their incidence at intersections with surveillance cameras was increasing.

Recognizing further study is needed, the report concluded that at a minimum, “there is no evidence” the red light cameras decrease accidents. But, of course, they bring in revenue. The city declined to respond to inquiries about the critical study, and reportedly is conducting its own study. Care to guess what its conclusions will be?

The other recent study analyzed the impact of speed cameras in London, England, and found that over hundreds of locations at which the surveillance devices were employed, the number of accidents had increased rather than decreased. At many other sites studied, accident rates remained the same.

As with their U.S. counterparts, London officials reap huge financial rewards from utilizing the cameras — a 20 percent annual profit after deducting installation and processing costs.

The London study found the prevalence of the traffic surveillance cameras was actually deadly, with nearly 400 of the camera sites registering an increase in people killed or seriously injured after the cameras were installed.

Studies by the British government extol the virtues of the traffic cameras and, since the decision to keep the cameras in place rests with the same local officials who receive revenue from the devices, a decrease in cameras is unlikely.

Privacy concerns relating to the prevalence of surveillance cameras by state and local governments are well-documented. In addition, there now appear to be tangible safety drawbacks in using such technology. Not that this will deter cash-strapped city and county governments, which are always loath to curtail services but ever eager to discover more and better ways to raise revenues. Once again, cash trumps the Constitution


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