It’s an experience familiar to many. You’re rushing to work. The light turns yellow. You step on the gas—only to see red as you hit the intersection. You’re hit with an omniscient flash from above, and three weeks later comes a letter imposing a fine.
Over the past few years states have been adding automated red-light cameras to dangerous intersections as a way of cutting down on traffic violations without having to increase the manpower of their police forces. But as quickly as they have gone up, many may soon be coming down.
The Florida House of Representatives, for example, will soon vote on a bill (passed out of committee on March 17) to repeal a law allowing communities to install cameras above their traffic lights. The automated camera program in Florida is less than a year old, and came into effect with the passage of the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act, named after a man who died when a driver struck him while speeding through a red light.
“Sometimes horrible circumstances make for bad law,” said Republican state Rep. Richard Corcoran, one of the authors of the repeal bill. “If you go to an average guy on the street, like Jay Leno does, and ask if these cameras make intersections safer, they would certainly say yes. But that doesn’t make it true. Study after study shows that these cameras make intersections more dangerous.”
What seems to be true is that intersections with red-light cameras do have an increase in rear-end collisions. A study from The Washington Post in 2005 found that the number of crashes at locations with cameras in Washington, D.C., more than doubled, from 365 collisions in 1998 to 755 in 2004.
Gary Biller, the executive director of the National Motorists Association (slogan: “Motorists Have Rights. We’ve Been Protecting Them Since 1982”), said he is not surprised by these findings.
“Of course the accident rate is going to go up at these intersections,” he said. “It’s human instinct, if you see the camera, to hit your brakes, even if there is a car directly behind you. It’s kind of like seeing a state trooper on the side of the road ahead.”
Biller also noted that there are alternatives to the cameras, such as lengthening the time of yellow lights, which studies show reduces the number of accidents.
But proponents of the cameras—like Melissa Wandall, Mark Wandall’s widow who spent years advocating for their implementation—point out that rear-end collisions are not the same as the kind of accidents that happen when someone blazes through a red light.
“People in Florida seem to feel like they have the right to run red lights,” she said. “I wouldn’t mind if people weren’t being injured or killed. But they are, so I do mind.”
What irks Wandall is that legislators aren’t even giving the law a chance to work.
“Any time there’s a change to an intersection there’s a learning period,” she said. “Even putting up a new traffic light may cause a few rear-end collisions at first, but that doesn’t mean they should just get rid of the traffic light.”
The state House minority whip, Democratic Rep. Evan Jenne, agrees.
“I think it’s a system that definitely has some kinks in it, but the problem is this new bill doesn’t try to work on the problems, just outright repeal of the language,” he said. “These cameras can do a lot of good for public safety, but repeal would make them go the way of the dinosaur less than a year after we first got them.”
In Florida, the bill seems likely to pass the House, but Corcoran said it would be a “Herculean effort” to get it to pass the state Senate.
Florida isn’t the only state having issues with these cameras on a constitutional level.
A number of appellate courts in California have been striking down ticket citations from automated cameras. The problem, they say, is that the cameras do not offer the appropriate level of proof. When John Macias was issued a ticket in San Bernardino, a three-judge panel reversed the decision, saying that the sheriff who testified against Macias had no personal knowledge of the facts of the case and his evidence was therefore hearsay.
Cristobol Rodriguez of Las Cruces, N.M., is hoping for a similar ruling. Rodriguez, an assistant professor at New Mexico State University, has spent a year and a half fighting a $100 ticket he got for speeding by an automated camera.
Rodriguez estimates that he has spent about 40 hours fighting the citation. If time is money, he isn’t getting a great exchange, but Rodriguez says this is about more than just getting his ticket thrown out.
“When I started going down the path of appealing, I had just moved out, finished my doctorate,” he said. “I was moving and $100 was a lot of money at that time. I was counting pennies. But over time I realized it was an important action because I definitely am not the only one whose rights were being infringed upon.”
The crux of Rodriguez’s argument is that there is no proof that he was the one driving the car. The camera only took a picture of his license plate.
But Wandall says she isn’t all that sympathetic to people who get tickets from automated cameras, saying that the Constitution was not written to help people commit crimes.
“People do not like being caught doing something wrong,” she said. “Also, if someone doesn’t like an intersection where there is a camera, go to another intersection.”
Or, of course, they could stop when the light turns red.
This article appears in the April 4, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.