Municipalities Forced To Write Tickets To Maintain Red-Light Contracts

New report shows towns forced to maximize profits, not safety

A consumer watchdog group says municipalities are signing contracts that force them to write a certain number of tickets on drivers who run red lights, a situation that jeopardizes safety and puts profits ahead of citizens' interests.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group says that when some municipalities sign contracts with vendors to provide red-light cameras, they end up with agreements that privatize traffic law enforcement in a way that does not prioritize safety. Some contracts split ticket revenue 50/50, with half going to the vendor and the other half going to the municipality. So to make up for the fact that they are giving away half their ticket revenue, municipalities write more tickets.

"Automated traffic ticketing tends to be governed by contracts that focus more on profits than safety," said Jen Kim of the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group.

Profits Over Safety

The recently-released US Public Interest Research Group, titled Caution: Red Light Cameras Ahead, points out that half of all states use some kind of camera system to enforce driving laws. But their presence is increasingly controversial.

Why? Because although running red lights is dangerous -- it accounts for 2% of fatal accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- red light cameras may actually cause crashes. Cautious drivers slam on the brakes at yellow lights, increasing the incidents of rear-end accidents.

The best way to make red lights safer is to lengthen the amount of time the yellow light stays illuminated. But when municipalities suddenly get into the business of making money off tickets, sometimes towns shorten yellow light times.

That's what happened in Glassboro, N.J., last year. After the former mayor of a neighboring town got a red-light ticket driving through the town, it was discovered that yellow lights were shorter than the federal minimum of 4 seconds.

Economic Burden

Since the economic collapse in 2008 that slammed property values, municipalities have collected less taxes from property owners in their towns. To close that gap, they either need to cut spending or raise revenue. Red-light cameras appear to be one way to keep revenue flowing.

The pool of money from red-light tickets is tempting. The contracts often ask very little of municipalities, other than encouraging them to keep writing tickets. In some "cost-neutral" contracts, cities don't have to pay a vendor fee every month if the cost of the ticket revenue is enough to cover the fee. If the towns fall short, they owe the contractor money.

Some contracts give the vendors a lot of power: Walnut, Calif., for example, signed a contract that would penalize the town for waiving more than 10 percent of violations identified by the camera. Sometimes vendors veto camera locations if they don't think the spot will earn them enough money, the report said. Cash-strapped municipalities are often trapped in the the arrangement, forced to pay penalties if they cancel their contract early.

Powerful Influence

Private vendors like Redflex and American Traffic Solutions have publicly resisted programs that have drivers' best interest in mind. In Tempe, Ariz., Redflex filed a lawsuit against the city for $1.3 million, saying a program that allowed drivers to avoid fees by attending driving school violated its contract with the city. In California, Bell Gardens agreed to a contract with Redflex that penalizes the city if it chooses to alter the length of its yellow lights.

Sometimes camera vendors become powerful lobbiers. In 2011, camera vendors employed nearly 40 lobbyists in Florida, whose agenda included killing a bill that would have required municipalities to adopt long yellow light times. Longer yellow lights would have increased intersection safety but lowered revenue. Red light vendors have gone as far to create and fund organizations such as the National Coalition for Safer Roads, that pose as grassroots civic groups and advocate for the red light cameras.

But some regions are starting to wake up to the pitfalls of contracting out red light tickets.

A dozen cities and nine states have bans on the cameras.This summer Houston became yet another U.S. city to ban red light cams, on the coattails of Los Angeles, which had a similar decision. But the surveillance devices are widespread in Washington, D.C. and set to increase in New York.

Bottom-line: Municipalities are forced by economic desperation into revenue-generating contracts with red-light camera vendors that prioritize revenue over safety. This privatization of red-light contracts proves increasingly invasive over the conduct of law and controversial.

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