The Magazine

Rolling Back the Nanny State

One red-light camera at a time

Aug 1, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 43 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Last March the city council in San Bernardino voted 5-0 to kill their red-light camera system. Since the cameras were installed in 2005, the program had brought them little but grief. In 2008, the city was caught shortening the timing of yellow lights in order to gin up more citations. Later that year a California appellate court ruled that the city’s contract with the red-light camera service American Traffic Solutions (ATS) was in violation of state law. And in 2010, a county court ruled that images from red-light cameras were inadmissible hearsay. The cameras were such a debacle for San Bernardino that in the end the city paid ATS $110,000 to get out of a contract that would have kept the cameras in place until 2014.

Red Light Camera Photo

NEWSCOM

It sounds like an extraordinary story: a city, in the middle of a recession, paying a vendor to cancel a contract that is supposed to produce revenue. But it turns out that San Bernardino isn’t extraordinary at all. Across California and the rest of the country, cities and towns are dismantling their red-light camera regimes. And it’s this larger story that’s remarkable, because it shows that even at this late date, the people can, from time to time, still hold their governments to account.

Like many cultural plagues, the red-light camera originated in Europe. Invented by a Dutch race-car driver, Maurice Gatsonides, red-light cameras were installed by European municipalities throughout the 1980s to ticket drivers without the necessity of using actual police. In 1993 the sickness crossed the Atlantic, and New York City permanently installed cameras of its own.

The idea behind the red-light camera is simple: Place the device in an intersection, and when a car passes through after the light has turned from amber to red, it snaps away—taking photos of the car’s position, the driver’s side window, and the license plate. In practice, the system is only slightly more complicated because the local police do not operate the cameras themselves. Instead, the city contracts with one of several big corporations (such as American Traffic Solutions, based in Arizona, or Redflex, an Australian firm) who do the work for them. The company installs, maintains, and monitors the cameras. When they catch someone running a red light, they electronically send the file to the local police department for a pro forma sign off, and then they mail out the ticket themselves. The company typically collects the fine and returns some share of the money to the municipality. It’s a little like privateering.

And like privateering, red-light cameras are a pretty good business. American governments initially justified them under the rubric of public safety—the cameras were supposed to make intersections safer and protect, bless their little hearts, The Children. But the fig leaf of safety frittered away as study after study showed that the cameras made little difference and in some cases actually made intersections less safe. Drivers, knowing cameras were watching, tended to jam on their brakes suddenly at yellow lights, causing accidents. Further research showed that there was a way to make intersections safer: Simply lengthen the duration of amber lights, allowing drivers more time to make the critical decision to stop or go.

But there’s no money in longer yellow lights. And it turned out that there was lots of it—piles and piles, really—in red-light cameras. In Washington, D.C., red-light cameras raised $15.6 million in their first 30 months of operation. In one year—2009—Chicago made $64 million from them. It’s such big business that in 2001, Lockheed Martin sold their red-light camera division to another company, Affiliated Computer Services, for $800 million.

Which is why, throughout the ’90s, red-light cameras sprouted across the American landscape. A company would come to town and pitch the local pols with the kind of deal that sold itself. “Just let us set up the cameras,” they’d say, “and we’ll give you a stream of never-ending revenue from a source that has no constituency. All you have to do is take credit for saving lives.” Five hundred thirty-nine cities in 25 states signed up.

For a while, it looked as though the red menace might spread, slowly and irresistibly, to every intersection in America. After all, this is the mode of public life to which we’ve become accustomed: Officials, some elected, some not, decide to add little annoyances to our daily lives—more regulations for light bulbs, toilets, seatbelts, speed bumps—that prove irrevocable. Oh sure, on the big-ticket items—war, abortion, taxes, spending—elections have consequences. But when it comes to the little things, modern government has become a ratchet that only turns one way.

Yet the spectacle of government handing law enforcement duties to private companies with a monetary incentive to write as many citations as possible was a bridge too far. And city by city, the cameras have been pushed back.

Amazingly enough, in some cases the courts actually helped. In California they’ve made life difficult for the camera companies with decisions like the ones in San Bernardino. In Ohio a federal appeals court ruled that Cleveland’s camera law was so poorly crafted that since it said car “owners” could be ticketed, people who lease their vehicles were exempt. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that Minneapolis’s entire red-light camera program was illegal and forced the city to refund the $2.6 million it had collected.

In some cities, the government bureaucracy has pushed back, too. In Los Angeles last June, the Police Commission voted unanimously to drop its contract with ATS and get rid of cameras altogether. Despite the fact that L.A.’s red-light tickets are $476 a pop, and that the program has written $80 million worth of citations since 2004, the city has found a way to lose money on the deal. Once the camera company takes its fat cut, the residual dollars aren’t enough to cover the costs of the seven police officers who monitor the program and make the pro forma signoffs.

But the real muscle has come from voters. Petitions have put cameras on the ballot in local elections across the country, and whenever voters are given a choice on the matter, they say “no.” In Houston, a pair of lawyers fought city hall to get a charter amendment (Proposition 3) on the ballot. The city’s camera company, ATS, spent $1.7 million in advertising during the race. The cameras lost. In Anaheim, an amendment banning cameras won 73 percent. In Sulphur, Louisiana, an anti-camera measure took 86 percent. From Maryland to Ohio to Arizona to Illinois, whenever voters get to pull the lever, the cameras get run out of town.

Which is why many towns (and the camera companies) have tried to keep the matter out of voters’ hands. In its 2010 annual report, Redflex noted that, while citizens have attempted to introduce ballot measures on cameras in many localities, the company was “actively implementing measures to defend against them” so as to “protect and improve our interests” in these “markets.” That’s not just bare-knuckled Redflex tactics, it’s the industry standard. In Mukilteo, Washington, for instance, ATS asked a court to issue an emergency injunction preventing a proposed camera ban from appearing on the town’s ballot. The court declined; the anti-camera measure won, 70 to 30.

Part of the reason people hate cameras is that the alliance of business and government tends to bring out the worst in both. In 2009, Danny Park was driving through Santa Ana when a camera operated by Redflex tagged him for running a light. He fought the $436 ticket on the grounds that the city had not provided a 30-day warning period for the camera, which California state law requires at every intersection where a camera is operational. Park took his case all the way to the appellate division of the Superior Court in Orange County. And he won. The decision was scheduled for publication when the city of Santa Ana took the extremely unusual step of petitioning the state Supreme Court to “depublish” the decision. Why? It wouldn’t change the verdict in the Park case, but an unpublished decision would mean that other California drivers wouldn’t be able to use the case as precedent. Instead, they’d have to re-create Park’s entire argument from scratch—and likely work their way up the appeals chain, since the trial courts almost always find for the state in such cases—if they wanted to fight illegally manufactured tickets. (The High Court denied the request.)

When they’re not trying to game the legal system, the camera industry runs creepy Astroturf campaigns proclaiming its beneficence. Whenever cameras are in danger of going on ballots, a website appears. In Mukilteo it was KeepMukilteoSafe.com. The sites purport to be grassroots hubs for pro-camera voters, but they’re prefab constructs without a whit of actual public support behind them. At least 18 of them appeared across the country recently, nearly identical in form and content. All of the sites were registered by a company called Advarion, which provides web services to ATS.

Already prone to suspect the worst about camera companies and local governments, a ring of anti-camera activist websites went to work ferreting out other bits of Astroturf. (They followed in the footsteps of anti-camera activist Richard Diamond’s invaluable TheNewspaper.com.) They noticed that a particular line in favor of cameras kept appearing in the comments sections of stories about camera bans: “Seriously, you don’t hear non-smokers complain about cigarette taxes so why should we believe these whiners are anything but reckless drivers who don’t want to get caught?” The exact same wording and punctuation appears on dozens of websites, from the Washington Post to the Newark Star-Ledger. Other camera company fronts are slightly less bald-faced. The “National Coalition for Safer Roads,” for instance, is a nonprofit dedicated to showing that red-light cameras save lives. It’s actually staffed and run by a former Bush appointee. The organization is also, as the website demurely puts it, “supported by” ATS.

There’s nothing new or shocking about an industry lobbying for itself, standing up fake grassroots support, and spending money to influence elections. But the fact that the camera companies behave like any other rent-seeking business tells you everything you need to know about them. Except that in this case, the rent they’re seeking doesn’t come from private-sector competitors. It comes from you.

And like other rent-seekers, the camera industry doesn’t stoically accept the strictures of law and elections. It fights back. In 2009, voters in College Station, Texas, killed the town’s camera program. A week later, an organization called “Keep College Station Safe” sued the city, claiming that the petition leading to the referendum was invalid. “Keep College Station Safe” is a political action committee with $67,100 in total funding: $30,000 from ATS, $5,000 from an ATS consultant, $8,000 from a contractor who works for ATS, $5,000 from an ATS subcontractor, and $16,600 from a company that prints the tickets for ATS.

Voters in College Station then ran up against another obstacle: When “Keep College Station Safe” sued College Station, the city government—which was pro-camera—was eager to roll over and lose the case. It was only after citizen pressure forced the city to hire outside counsel that the lawsuit was defeated and the cameras came down.

Houston has the same problem. After voters approved a measure to get rid of cameras earlier this year, ATS filed suit on similar grounds. In the case of Proposition 3, they maintained that the city could only cancel the program via a “referendum,” but that the vote was put on the ballot as a “charter amendment.” In this case, ATS won. The judge told the city to turn the cameras back on. And it wasn’t at all clear that Houston’s politicians were unhappy to lose in court—the mayor and her city attorney are both camera supporters who didn’t even feign reluctance when they started the cameras running again. Only this time, they no longer pointed to safety as a reason for the cameras. Now the mayor said that she had to keep the cameras running because ATS was holding the city hostage. “Realizing that we have already laid off nearly 750 city employees through a very difficult budget process,” she said, “I can’t in good conscience allow millions of dollars in exposure to ATS under this contract.”

If anything, the case of Houston shows how remarkable it is that the public has made any progress at all against red-light cameras. Because the government is usually more foe than friend. For example, earlier this summer the California assembly took up a bill that would allow cities to reduce posted speeds in certain areas by 5 mph. The reason: cameras. In many intersections, a lower posted speed limit allows traffic lights to have shorter yellow-light intervals. And shorter amber times mean, well, yes, more accidents. But more camera citations, too.

Such are the minutiae of the menace cameras pose to the American system of governance: tenths-of-a-second on yellow-light times and the legal distinction between referendums and charter amendments.

None of it—not shorter yellows or the cameras or the $400 tickets—represents a grand, existential threat to the Republic. But it’s a threat all the same. A threat to the idea that government should be a tool of the people. Not a ratchet.

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