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.
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.