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Caution: Red Light Cameras Ahead:The Risks of Privatizing Traffic Law Enforcement and How to Protect the Public
by Travis Madsen, Frontier Group and Phineas Baxandall, U.S. PIRG Education Fund
Privatized traffic law enforcement systems are spreading rapidly across the United States. As many as 700 local jurisdictions have entered into deals with for-profit companies to install camera systems at intersections and along roadways to encourage drivers to obey traffic signals and follow speed limits.
Local contracting for automated traffic enforcement systems may sometimes be a useful tool for keeping drivers and pedestrians safe. But when private firms and municipalities consider revenues first, and safety second, the public interest is threatened.
Before pursuing a camera system contract, local governments should heed the advice of the Federal Highway Administration and first investigate traffic engineering solutions for problem intersections or roadways. If officials decide that private enforcement systems are appropriate, they should avoid deals that constrain future decisions related to protecting safety. Privatized traffic law enforcement should be used solely as a tool for enhancing traffic safety – not as a cash cow for municipalities or private firms.
Privatized traffic law enforcement systems are spreading rapidly across the United States.
- According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, about half of U.S. states have authorized the use of red-light cameras. Our compilation of industry listings shows that approximately 693 local governments and authorities have active red-light cameras, or are in the process of installing them, as of September 2011. Another 92 have contracts for automated speed limit enforcement cameras. Altogether, these jurisdictions are home to more than 60 million people, or about one in five Americans.
- These camera systems automatically detect violations of traffic laws, take photos of the offending vehicles, and identify license plates. Typically, vendors issue tickets, which must be approved by local authorities, and deliver them by mail to the registered owner of the vehicle.
- Privatized traffic enforcement is part of a larger trend of local governments outsourcing the management of toll roads, parking meters, water and sewer assets, and sometimes even public safety services such as fire protection to private firms.
Contracts between private camera vendors and cities can include payment incentives that put profit above traffic safety.
- The most problematic contracts require cities to share revenue with the camera vendor on a per-ticket basis or through other formulas as a percentage of revenue. In other words, the more tickets a camera system issues, the more profit the vendor collects. For example, Suffolk County, New York, diverts half of the revenue from its red-light camera program to camera vendor Affiliated Computer Services.
- Conditional “cost-neutral” contracts also contain provisions that link payments to the number of tickets issued, although payments are capped. Under these contracts, cities pay a monthly fee to a camera vendor. In the event that ticket revenues fail to cover the vendor fee in any given month, however, cities may delay payment – giving vendors an incentive to ensure a minimum level of citations are issued.
Privatized traffic enforcement system contracts that limit government discretion to set and enforce traffic regulations put the public at risk. For example:
- Yellow Light Duration. When traffic engineers lengthen a yellow signal, it gives drivers more time to react to the signal change, which tends to reduce the number of red-light violations. However, some contracts, including those in the California cities of Bell Gardens, Citrus Heights, Corona and Hawthorne, potentially impose financial penalties on the city if traffic engineers extend the length of the yellow light at intersections with red-light cameras, which would reduce the number of tickets the systems can issue.
- Right on Red Enforcement. Law enforcement agencies in different cities choose which types of violations to prioritize in the name of public safety, including whether or not to ticket motorists who make a “rolling stop” rather than a complete stop behind the line before turning right on a red light. However, some contracts require municipalities to strictly issue tickets on all right turns that do not first come to a complete stop, or enable vendors to impose financial penalties on cities that choose to alter their enforcement standards – including the contracts that Ventura and Napa Valley, California have with camera vendor Redflex.
- Ticket Quotas. Some contracts include language that could penalize municipalities if they do not approve enough tickets – effectively setting a ticket quota and undermining the authority of local officials to decide which violations warrant citations. For example, Walnut, California signed a contract with Redflex that raises the possibility of a financial penalty if the city waives more than 10 percent of the potential violations identified by the private camera system. Other contracts give camera vendors the ability to veto proposed camera locations, sometimes referring to a minimum ticket number or revenue requirement.
Contracts between camera vendors and cities can include penalties for early termination – or fail to provide provisions for early termination – leaving taxpayers on the hook even if the camera program fails to meet its objectives. For example:
- After voters in Houston elected to shut off the city’s red-light camera program in November 2010, American Traffic Solutions claimed that the city would owe the company $25 million for withdrawing from the contract before it expired in 2014.
- After San Bernardino, California, decided to terminate its red-light camera program in March 2011, American Traffic Solutions threatened to impose a $1.8 million penalty on the city.
- The city council in Victorville, California, considered shutting down the local red-light camera program, but discovered that their new contract with Redflex did not contain a clause addressing early termination. The council estimated that pulling out of the contract before its 2015 expiration date would only be possible through litigation.
- The city of Baytown, Texas, signed a contract through 2019 for a red-light camera system with American Traffic Solutions. However, after voters decided that red-light tickets could not be issued unless a uniformed officer was present at an intersection, the city began waiving many of the citations issued by the system. In response, American Traffic Solutions filed a lawsuit, alleging that the city was failing to meet its contractual obligation to issue tickets. In August 2011, Baytown settled the dispute by authorizing a $1 million payment to American Traffic Solutions in exchange for early camera removal.
The privatized traffic law enforcement industry has amassed significant political clout that it uses to shape traffic safety nationwide.
- Camera vendors are aggressively lobbying to expand authorization for private traffic law enforcement to more states and are marketing enforcement systems to more communities. Local governments are likely to encounter traffic law enforcement privatization campaigns in the near future, if they have not already.
- In 2011, camera vendors employed nearly 40 lobbyists in Florida, whose agenda included killing a bill that would have required municipalities to adopt longer yellow light times to increase intersection safety, and killing a separate bill that would have banned red-light camera systems.
- Some red-light camera vendors have created and bankrolled organizations, such as the National Coalition for Safer Roads, that pose as grassroots civic groups while presenting only the upsides of camera systems and failing to discuss alternatives.
As local governments consider initiating or renewing contracts for privatized traffic law enforcement, officials should protect the public by adhering to the following principles:
- Put public safety first in decisions regarding enforcement of traffic laws – this includes evaluating privatized law enforcement camera systems against alternative safety options without regard to potential revenues.
- Ensure that contract language is free from potential conflicts of interest.
- Avoid direct or indirect incentives for vendors that are based on the volume of tickets or fines.
- Retain complete public control over all transportation policy decisions.
- Retain the option to withdraw from a contract early if dissatisfied with service or its effects.
- Ensure that the process of contracting with vendors is completely open, with ample opportunity for meaningful public participation.
- Make information about the operation of privatized traffic law enforcement fully transparent and accessible online.
- Do not permit information about individual vehicles and drivers gathered by camera vendors to be used for any purpose other than the enforcement of traffic laws.
- Consider establishing state standards to help cities avoid contracting for automated enforcement systems that are not justified or when alternatives make more sense.