Is traffic camera technology being misused?

Speed and red light cameras offer the promise of reducing accidents and deaths, but government misuse is preventing the devices from reaching their full potential.

This summer, officials in New York’s Nassau County had to dismiss $2.4 million worth of tickets because of inconsistencies in their speed-detector cameras. Some tickets for speeding through a school zone were issued when schools were closed, leading to about a quarter of the citations being invalidated. The Long Island county nonetheless plans to move ahead with the system when schools reopen, and drivers who fail to slow down will receive $80 fines in the mail.

But scheduling problems aren't the only glitches. The potential revenues for municipalities and the companies that supply the devices (Nassau County’s contractor, American Traffic Solutions, receives 38 percent of the fines) have proven tempting in some places, leading to allegations of corruption.

In Chicago, there's a federal probe into an alleged multimillion-dollar bribery scandal involving the camera system’s now-dismissed contractor, Redflex Traffic Systems. Moreover, an investigation by the Chicago Tribune uncovered irregularities in the frequency of tickets being issued at some of the city’s intersections. The newspaper found that there were spikes in the number of tickets issued from some red light camera systems that did not correlate with traffic data. In other words, there was either a technical problem or the systems were being manipulated to issue thousands of tickets to drivers who did not deserve them.

When municipalities began using the technology, their goal was laudable: Install radar-connected cameras to catch speeders, and place cameras at intersections to catch drivers who run red lights.

Every parent agrees that cars should slow down around schools. And running red lights causes some of the most serious car accidents, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, whose research shows that red light cameras can reduce accidents and prevent T-bone collisions at intersections.

So the abuse and misuse of the technology is disappointing, to say the least.

Speed and red light cameras have to be constantly maintained. Radar systems need to be regularly calibrated, and video cameras have to record violations precisely. Many red light offenses, for example, involve rolling right turns, where drivers fail to come to a complete stop. So the cameras need to be able to prove that the car continued to move forward.

But even when it’s working properly, the most sophisticated technology can be stymied when it is mishandled. In order for it to be accepted and effective, technology has to be used in an honest and straightforward manner, or it will be rejected.

New York City, for example, has traditionally hidden the few red light cameras it deploys. (The city has even used dummy cameras to trick drivers.) There are no warning signs that drivers are approaching a dangerous intersection, so they don’t slow down and they continue to run red lights, as I witnessed several times this week.

“New York City does not view cameras as revenue raisers,” Polly Trottenberg, the city's Department of Transportation commissioner, said in testimony on April 30. “We view them as safety devices. As I have said before, if the city collects no more revenue from speed cameras because motorists have stopped speeding, then I will declare victory.”

Unfortunately, the city is demonstrating the opposite goal by hiding the 120 new speed cameras it's installing near schools. In order to slow down drivers, there have to be warning signs that act as a deterrent. That’s why Chicago, Nassau County and other municipalities in the U.S. post signs at intersections warning drivers about photo enforcement. When radar and camera systems are concealed, the public begins to mistrust government and the true aim of using the technology.

The lack of oversight and the unwillingness of some municipalities to be forthright about how and where they are using these systems have hamstrung the technology. In Arizona and Los Angeles, they have led to a complete repeal.

The lesson is, if we aren't careful about how we use technology, we could lose not only its potential benefits, but the right to use it entirely.