Back Off Big Brother: Red Light Cameras Draw Ire And Violence

Some cities are dropping them, but others are installing more cameras to boost ticket revenue

Citizens are striking back at Big Brother by vandalizing red light cameras and even shooting the lenses out with guns. One notorious vigilante has even beat the system by wearing Halloween masks.

And while some cities are responding, by banning or eliminating the cameras, others are beefing up their systems.

On Wednesday the AP reported Houston became the most recent U.S. city to ban red light cams, on the coattails of Los Angeles, which had a similar decision last month. But the surveillance devices are widespread in Washington, D.C., and set to increase in New York.

Cameras are currently used in 540 communities across 26 states, the Insurance Institue For Highway Safety reports. But a dozen cities and nine states have bans on the cameras.

One place they're going strong is New York City, where they've existed since 1993. Mayor Michael Bloomberg stated earlier this week a belief that such devices should be on every corner in the city. Considering the profit-motive, who could blame him for the push? New York City took in $52 million in fines from drivers caught by its 150 red light cameras (with an additional $3 million from penalties), the New York Daily News reported.

Bloomberg wants to boost the number of cameras up to 225. Outside the city limits, citizens are opposed to red-light cameras.

Last summer in Nassau County, the cameras were attacked by vigilantes. The vandals spray-painted 14 cameras and damaged the antenna of one so that it could not send images properly.

While local tax revenue is down with the recession and housing crisis, local governments see cameras as an important revenue generator.

Ticket revenue is like free money for governments, because they don't pay to have the cameras installed. Private companies supply the cameras and take a slice of the revenue from the fines collected. That incentive has led to some lawsuits where plaintiffs have proven that some cameras have shorter yellow-light durations than state law requirements in order to catch drivers running red lights and boost ticket revenue.

L.A. was unable to have the Los Angeles County Superior Court enforce payments on tickets and had about 65,000 unpaid tickets last month.

Some citizens see the cameras as infringement on personal privacy and symptomatic of dangers on an ever technology-laden road -- complete with E-ZPass transponder trackers and vulnerable cell phone data.

Dave VonTesmar tries to make a point about the cameras by dressing in a monkey mask and then intentionally racing past photo radar devices in Arizona. The move helped him get out of tickets.

"There is no proof that I am the driver in all of these photos," VonTesmar told ABC 15, a Phoenix radio station.

Sometimes the backlashes turn violent. In 2007, Clifford E. Clark III, a 47-year-old who had run a red light, returned to the same location a few hours later to shoot the camera with a hunting rifle. He was charged with felony vandalism and reckless endangerment.

This explosive response is a measure against what as been seen as merely a money-making scheme. It's unclear if the cameras help stop fatal accidents. While the 2% of fatal accidents resulting from blown red lights are relatively rare, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, stopping short also causes crashes. Some studies have shown that cars fearing red light cameras have been increasingly rear-ended, having stopped suddenly to avoid burning a yellow.

Bottom-line: Cash, not safety, seems to be dictating law enforcement support for red light cams. As a movement for their increased prevalence grows, the backlash could become more intense.

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