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Caution: Red Light Cameras Ahead

Over the past few years, I have begun to notice unusual boxes on poles going up at a handful of busy intersections and along stretches of roadway near my home in Southern California, particularly in Ventura and Santa Clarita. It turns out that the boxes are traffic cameras, installed by a company that earns profit through capturing violations of traffic laws “on film” and issuing tickets on behalf of the local law enforcement agency. Millions of Americans are becoming familiar with these objects, as they are now present in communities where about one in every 5 Americans live.

Ultimately, it is up to local government officials to determine how best to guarantee the safety of walkers, bikers and motorists in their communities—and to assess whether automated traffic enforcement is a useful tool in meeting that goal. I definitely do not want people running red lights in my community, and I believe that our transportation system needs to be safer.

However, the deals that local governments enter into in order to obtain traffic camera systems are not always the best examples of good government.

Today, U.S. PIRG Education Fund released a report I co-authored addressing the pitfalls that can arise when local governments outsource aspects of traffic law enforcement to private, for-profit companies. The report, Caution: Red Light Cameras Ahead, documents examples of contracts that

  • include conflicts of interest, such as rewarding camera vendors financially for issuing more tickets;
  • limit government discretion to set and enforce traffic regulations, such as setting the length of yellow signals or identifying violations of right-on-red regulations; or
  • impose heavy penalties on local governments who choose to terminate their camera programs early after a vote of the citizens or a decision by a city council.

The report has been covered in media outlets nationwide, including USA TodayNBC Chicagothe Seattle Timesthe Washington Post, and dozens of outlets served by the Associated Press.

The dynamic present in the for-profit traffic law enforcement industry is a classic example of the tension between a special interest and the overall public interest in our system of government. It is hard to imagine meter readers lobbying for an increase in the number of parking meters in a town, or traffic cops arguing for more stop signs, solely on the basis that doing so would enable them to write more tickets. However, that is the dynamic that has arisen with the privatized traffic enforcement industry. The industry’s business model depends on more governments adopting their technology and enforcing traffic laws in ways that boost the industry’s bottom line.

Given the significant resources that this industry is able to bring to bear to advance its technology, any community considering outsourcing traffic law enforcement must carefully weigh the decision and ensure that it protects the interests of citizens in safe roadways and good government. Reading this report would be a good place to start.