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
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.
Over in High Point, North Carolina, lawyer Marshall Hurley is trying to make a judge see things similarly, but may have a tougher go of it in what appears to be the most ethically-compromised system in the nation. High Point contracts with Electronic Data Systems, which subcontracts with PEEK Traffic. A big, happy family, the three entities have formed SafeLight. If a High Point citizen wants to appeal a photo ticket, he first has to pay a $50 "bond" (presumption of innocence be damned). But when a motorist heads into traffic adjudication, he meets not a judge or even a lawyer, but rather a college professor, hired to appear disinterested in the outcome. The professors are paid from the funds generated by red-light camera tickets, and the hearings are held not in court, but at SafeLight's offices, a fact that even a disinterested professor might find interesting.
Back in Washington, I have come to the logical terminus of all this unpleasantness--the coldest, most menacing place on earth, the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles. I pass through a metal detector with a sign warning "Confiscated weapons will not be returned" in order to watch sad-sack motorists try to argue their way out of red-light camera tickets (in some localities, adjudication centers have become so backed up, they've had to sub out their hearings). Finding the when or whereabouts of the hearings, however, is no simple matter. The ocher lighting reflecting off ugly formica surfaces long ago calcified the once lifelike frowns of the DMV workers into permanent sneers. Every transaction is a hostile interrogation, with a bewildered customer asking questions of a much craftier DMV worker, practiced in the art of never giving two pieces of information when one will do.
When I ask the Information lady where the automated enforcement hearings are, she tells me to go to The Green Desk. The Green Desk says to go Downstairs. Downstairs says to go Upstairs. Upstairs tells me to check with Information, where the cycle starts anew. Running out of patience and bladder capacity, I go to the restroom. Even here, the layout is ill-planned, with the urinal stationed right in front of the sole bathroom stall, causing a traffic hazard that no six-second yellow light could solve.
Defeated, I return to the office to check out the police department's website in search of possible court dates. There aren't any. Instead, there is more useful information. The police have helpfully included a tip sheet on "How to Avoid Con Games and Swindles." It reads, "Never turn over large sums of cash to anyone, especially a stranger, no matter how promising the deal looks."
Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.