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Inside the District's Red Lights

Red-light cameras are all over Washington--and coming to a city near you. The science behind them is bad and the police are using them to make money, not save lives. It's much worse than you thought. Part 1 in a series.

11:00 PM, Mar 31, 2002 • By MATT LABASH
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Like the film shot by red-light cameras, photo radar film is sent to a processing center run by Lockheed Martin IMS. Though the weapons manufacturer, whose IMS division was the largest automated enforcement vendor in the nation, sold the division to Affiliated Computer Services for $800 million, if Lockheed's projections hold, ACS will reap $44 million from D.C.-generated tickets by 2004 (the city itself will pull in $117 million). It is at this center that the vendor elves, or "image specialists," not only develop film, but decide which pictures warrant citations. Internal Lockheed documents reveal that their camera's success rate can be as low as 42 percent (other vendors fall as low as 33 percent)--meaning that pictures must be tossed for reasons ranging from "data errors" to "clarity of [license] plate." From there, success rates drop even further. After vendors send out the tickets--which may or may not be subject to police review before being issued, depending on the city--it has been estimated by an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) study that the registered owner of the vehicle--the one ticketed after a vendor matches a plate number to a DMV record--is the actual driver of the car only 72 percent of the time.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, it must be noted, is one of the staunchest advocates of automated enforcement, and views the 72 percent figure as a triumph. To which any reasonable person might ask, what other law enforcement tool snags the wrong guy over one-fourth of the time, and is still considered a success?

Just to recap, consider: A private company is given police power to ticket citizens, has a monetary interest in generating as many tickets as possible, and, despite its low success rate, is often allowed to do so with minimal or no police supervision.

It would seem that a trip to Lockheed IMS's processing center was in order to watch its employees fulfill their constabulary duties. But when I ask D.C. police spokesman Kevin Morison for a tour, he must check with Lockheed, though the police are purportedly running the operation. A few days later, Morison regretfully informs me that Lockheed said no--"They had privacy concerns." Morison at least plays at being oblivious to the richness of a vendor's claiming to be concerned about your privacy after taking a picture of your car and in some instances whoever's in your car, tapping into your DMV records, levying a fine against you, then mailing the whole care package to your house (in Italy, a senator's marriage faltered when his wife spotted his mistress in a photo radar citation).

But Morison is not completely unhelpful. He says that during the first eight days of photo radar use last August, 13,844 highway motorists and 9,574 motorists in residential areas were photographed for potential citations--the equivalent of 4 percent of D.C.'s entire population. To put that in perspective, D.C. police issued only 10,000 speeding tickets in all of 2000. Considering that citations can run up to $200 a throw, citizens might be forgiven any cynicism regarding Chief Ramsey's statement that automated enforcement "isn't about revenue making, it's about saving lives."

Tune in Tuesday for Part 2: The Yellow Menace . . .

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5

Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.