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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

Recent Blog Posts