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Fighting the Good Fight

Camera advocates claim that most people like red-light cameras, but citizens across the country are taking to the barricades against them. Part 5 in a series.

11:00 PM, Apr 4, 2002 • By MATT LABASH
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Part 5 in a 5 part series.

Part 1 Inside the District's Red Lights: Red-light cameras and photo radar 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 2 The Yellow Menace: The police could make intersections safer with longer yellow lights. But the city wouldn't make any money that way.

Part 3 The Safety Myth: Photo-radar cameras are designed to catch speeders and save lives. Only, there's not much evidence that the speed limit is any safer.

Part 4 Getting Rear-Ended by the Law: Red-light cameras actually cause an increase in rear-end accidents. The pro-camera forces know this and are trying to keep you from seeing the data.

BY NOW, it should be fairly clear that even if numbers don't lie, the same can't be said for the people who use them. All that is left are the ugly particulars, the tales of woe and dread, of inconvenience and larceny, of the mistrust that has arisen between municipalities and the citizens they gouge with red-light cameras and photo radar. While the cities' most common refrain is that the majority of the public supports the technology, the public sure has a bizarre way of showing it.

Across the United States and Canada--where two provincial elections have swung for politicians promising to scrap local photo radar programs--citizens have made it clear why the supposedly beloved technology is installed inside bullet-proof casings. In Anchorage, photo radar operators were pelted with water balloons before cameras were finally banned. In Denver, police thought somebody fired on their photo radar van, though the projectile turned out just to be a rock. Elsewhere, camera units have been smeared with lubricant, pulled out of the ground with tow chains, and rammed by automobiles. In Paradise Valley, Arizona, where the city council once contemplated shooting motorists with photo radar cameras concealed in cactuses, one civic-minded citizen decided to shoot back, emptying 30 rounds of bullets into two photo radar units.

While some citizens suffer camera injustices in silence (a former Alberta resident had been dead for two months when Calgary police insisted their cameras caught him speeding), others become so outraged that they go a bit far. When James Nunn was ticketed in Greensboro, North Carolina, for running a red light even though his roommate was driving his car, he was told he could beat the ticket if he ratted out his friend, who would also have to agree to pay. Nunn decided to take the rap, and tried to pay the $50 himself--in pennies. "They wouldn't take it, said it wasn't a specified amount," grouses Nunn. "I said, 'oh yes it is,' I was ready to sit and watch them count it--I even brought a book." Then there's wealthy Ottawa businessman Doug Stead, who wasn't even sure he was driving his company car at the time he got a $100 photo radar ticket. But he is sure he's going to fight his five-year-old citation all the way to the Supreme Court--and has tried to do so at a cost of $120,000. "The case is like owning a boat," he says. "It nickels and dimes you to death. But if somebody with resources doesn't stand up, who will?"

Vendors like Lockheed Martin IMS anticipate a certain amount of public relations blowback, which is why, in internal documents, they warn their customers that "focus must be retained on the core message--increasing public safety." "In the event that other photo enforcement programs . . . have problems," the individual community's success must "be a dominant theme." A "problem" here could be defined as the one Lockheed had gotten itself into in San Diego. There, it was discovered that the company had surreptitiously moved three underground magnetic sensors that triggered the cameras, causing innocent motorists to get ticketed for running red lights. So foul is the process, that lawyer Arthur Tait and his defense team have convinced a Superior Court judge to rule that "evidence from the red-light cameras will not be admitted" against motorists.