America's Red-Light Cameras: Financial gain ahead of safety?

(24-7PressRelease_ -- While many studies have shown that red-light cameras help to substantially reduce crashes, especially serious crashes at intersections, many local governments -- strapped for money -- are signing contracts with private companies that end up putting profits ahead of traffic safety. The question is, then, whether red-light cameras are actually being used to achieve traffic safety or more as a means of obtaining revenue for the city?

Approximately one quarter of all automobile crashes in the U.S. are caused when drivers run red lights: resulting in fatal injuries, significant property damage, medical bills, and insurance rate increases. In an effort to curb this, cities across the country -- including cities in New York with a population over 1 million -- have installed photo-enforced traffic control devices, or, red-light cameras. Red-light cameras automatically record and collect all evidence needed to prosecute offending drivers. Most often these red-light cameras are run by privately owned companies.

As these devices spring up at intersections across the country, some are questioning their deterrent effect as well as the appropriateness of the private sector's involvement in traffic enforcement, which is typically a governmental responsibility. Prior to red-light cameras, cities commonly used engineering methods at dangerous intersections to improve motorist safety: increasing the duration of the yellow light, and slightly increasing the amount of time red lights stay on at 4-way intersections.

But local governments, in the rush to reduce costs for maintaining traffic control systems, are entering into contracts with private companies for traffic enforcement at an increasing rate. And now public advocacy groups are questioning whether these contracts sometimes prevent local governments from acting in the best interests of their citizens.

Stricter Terms for Red-Light Camera Contracts

While local governments generally retain some role in traffic enforcement even after installing red-light cameras, their ability to deviate from many of the terms of their arrangements with the private suppliers is hampered -- even as the needs of their communities may change.

A national public advocacy group has identified a sharp rise in contracts with red-light camera vendors that actually restrict local police from implementing alternatives -- such as lengthening the yellow signal. Generally, a longer yellow signal allows drivers more time to react to a signal change, thereby reducing the number of traffic violations and decreasing the chance of a crash. However, a recent report issued by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that "some contracts potentially impose financial penalties on the city if traffic engineers extend the length of the yellow light at intersections, which would reduce the number of tickets the systems can issue."

Often, the most problematic contracts have a direct payout correlation to the number of tickets issued by the vendor. More tickets equal more revenue. The obvious problem with this is that private companies have a stake in maintaining a high rate of violations to ensure they receive continued revenue. This trend has only increased as the recession continues to place a strain on local governments' budgets and they seek alternative means to maintain community services.

For local governments that have installed or considering installation of red-light cameras, it is clear that these competing interests -- whether the terms of the contract penalize implementation of other safety measures that could possible reduce the revenue generation sought by the private operators -- need to be evaluated to ensure that citizens within the community are protected and that the community as a whole benefits. The bottom line of the debate: the public's best interests need to be protected without incentivizing enforcement of traffic violations.

About the writer:

Colwell, Colwell and Petroccione, LLP Check us out 


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