WASHINGTON – Red light photo enforcement cameras are being abused by municipalities to shake down drivers for needed revenue, a spokesman for the Automobile Association of America (search) told state officials recently, announcing the organization's shift in attitude.
“The evidence that many of these systems are about money, not safety, abounds,” Lon Anderson (search), director of AAA Mid-Atlantic, told the Governors Highway Safety Association's national convention. “And they certainly aren’t about justice for motorists either.”
Anderson pointed to what he called abuses in the nation’s capital, where the red light and speed enforcement cameras have netted the District of Columbia more than $52 million in revenue since the program began in 1999.
Anderson told Foxnews.com that AAA continues to support photo enforcement against speeders and red light runners, “as long as they are being used properly.”
“Problem is," he said, "there don’t appear to be very many good programs."
According to city officials and a December 2002 General Accounting Office (search) report requested by members of Congress, Washington, D.C., issued 377,743 citations for red light violations caught by cameras since August 1999, netting the city $21.9 million in fines.
A citation is generated when the camera captures an image of a driver’s license plate as it moves into the intersection after running a red light. The vendor then matches the license plate with records at the Department of Motor Vehicles. After police review, the vendor mails out the ticket.
Radar cameras catching speeders earned the city $30.3 million in fines from 587,434 citations during that same period. Mayor Anthony Williams (search) caused a stir in 2002 when he said that the cameras were not only increasing safety, but generating revenues for the city.
Kevin Morrison, spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Department, said Anderson was “out of touch” with the rest of the AAA on this issue. He said MPD has improved the program to accommodate motorists’ concerns.
Police officers review each citation and Affiliated Computer Services (search), which runs the program for the city, gets a flat fee of $190,000 per month for 39 camera locations. Previously, ACS got $32 for every $75 red light ticket and $29 for every speeding ticket they generated, leading drivers to complain the partnership had created a boondoggle.
“We’ve seen a 60 percent reduction in red light violations. Somehow, if we’re in the business of making money, we’re not doing a good job,” Morrison said.
Anderson acknowledged that the D.C. government has improved its system since it received complaints that it had been timing yellow lights shorter to trap drivers and was not requiring police officers to review photos and tickets before they were sent out. But, he added, he's still wary.
“Why are they running a better program? Because I blew the whistle on their shenanigans,” he said.
“I think [Anderson] overreacted to one comment made by Mayor Williams,” said Morrison, who denies that yellow lights were ever timed to trap drivers. “The vast majority of D.C. motorists support photo enforcement."
Other programs have boasted similar successes. The D.C. suburb of Montgomery County, Md., for example, released a survey last week that found that its red light enforcement program – which officials now plan to expand – resulted in a 21 percent reduction in red light running, and a 3.5 percent decrease in red light-related accidents at intersections with cameras.
“Our cameras are making a difference by giving police officers additional tools to aggressively enforce the law and crack down on motorists who don’t obey traffic signals,” said County Executive Doug Duncan.
Along with positive safety statistics, municipalities are making millions of dollars across the country by increasing their use of cameras, according to the GAO study, which polled 73 municipalities.
Five of them, including Washington, have received federal funds for their photo enforcement. According to the report, those cities minus D.C.'s speed trap revenues have collected a total of $50.4 million in fines for themselves and paid $46.2 million to private companies.
Using these statistics, critics who previously argued against cameras for privacy reasons now use the idea of a shakedown racket to get their message across.
“The photo enforcement scam is just that – it’s a scam. I believe it is one of the effects of states’ budgetary crises,” said Eric Skrum, communications director for the National Motorists Association. “This isn’t about safety, it’s about revenue.”
Skrum said that in “case after case,” his group’s studies have found that better engineering at intersections would result in the same decrease in violations and accidents.
“If you conduct these engineering changes,” like longer yellow lights and improved traffic flow, "the problem disappears," Skrum said.
“But municipalities don’t want to do this, they want to make money, they don’t want to spend money,” he said.
Anderson said that if money were not the issue, cities would attempt alternative forms of enforcement, like parking empty cruisers at problem intersections or posting large signs indicating radar enforcement of speed limits.
“I don’t disagree that they are getting good results, but are there other things they could be doing that would also have the same results?” he asked.
Morrison said signs indicate many of the intersections with cameras, but not all of them. “We’re not trying to hide them from anybody, but at the same time we’re trying to send the message that people need to stop at every red light, and not just the one with the camera.”