Monday, December 29, 2014

Red-Light Cameras: Proceed With Caution

The Latin phrase "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" means "Who will guard the guards themselves?" It may have originated with the Roman poet Juvenal, who flourished around the first century A. D., but the problem it highlights is much older than that.  Those who are charged with enforcing a law always experience a temptation to abuse the power that enforcement confers.  The case in point here is the use—and abuse—of so-called red-light cameras that photograph alleged runners of red lights and produce traffic citations that are mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle in question.

By the 1990s, the technology making these devices practical was sufficiently advanced that cities began installing them.  According to an article in a recent issue of National Review, over 500 cities in about half the states in the U. S. now use them.  Although the professed reason for adopting red-light cameras is to reduce the number of red-light runners, studies have shown that the evidence for lowering accident rates at intersections with red-light cameras is mixed.  Traffic engineers have noted a perverse counter-incentive at intersections where drivers know a red-light camera is installed.  Some drivers get so jumpy at seeing a yellow light at a camera-equipped intersection that they jam on their brakes prematurely and get rear-ended by a less paranoid driver behind them. 

What is not in dispute is that the red-light cameras are real moneymakers, both for the municipalities that install them and for the companies that often install and operate them for the government free of charge, taking a portion of the fine proceeds as payment.  The city of Newark, New Jersey gets $4 million per year in revenue from red-light cameras, while Chicago averages about $50 million a year.  Chicago's city government does not have a reputation for being squeaky-clean, so it is not surprising that earlier this month a man named Martin O'Malley was convicted of giving a $2 million bribe to a city transportation official.  The money came from Redflex Traffic Systems, which up to last year operated the city's red-light cameras. 

Redflex also offers a related service to school-bus systems:  a stop-arm violation camera.  In most states, it is illegal to pass a stopped school bus while its red flashing lights are on and the stop-arm is extended, but many people do it anyway.  Redflex will install video cameras and wireless downloading and evaluation systems free of charge on every school bus in exchange for a percentage of the fines assessed for violations.  This type of system has also proved popular and has been installed on school buses across the country, including right here in San Marcos, Texas. 

The red-light and stop-arm cameras can be viewed simply as technological aids to conventional means of law enforcement.  But they differ from other security-camera systems such as those that catch convenience-store robbers in one significant respect:  the absence of a police officer at the scene.  If a live patrolman pulls you over for speeding, there is a human-to-human interaction, and technically you can haul the officer into court and subject him to cross-examination at trial.  The fact that most people don't bother doesn't change the principle.  But when there is nothing but photographic evidence for a violation, there is nobody to subpoena, and correcting mistaken identifications and other errors can become a more complex matter. 

Besides the potential for error, there is the temptation to shorten the duration of yellow lights to increase revenue.  City governments in Florida and Illinois have been caught quietly lowering the duration of yellow signals below the federal guideline of three seconds at red-light-camera-equipped intersections, and in Florida things got so bad that the state legislature passed a law prohibiting the practice. 

Beyond the immediate temptation to abuse the system in government's favor at the expense of private citizens, there is the larger question of whether it is a good thing to use technology in a way that incentivizes governments to enforce laws, not mainly because enforcement benefits society as a whole, but because it generates revenue for the government. 

We have just experienced the Christmas season.  According to the Gospels, Joseph and Mary, the mother of Jesus, had to travel from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, to fill out some government tax form.  In ancient Rome and its colonies, taxes were collected by private contractors called publicans.  The deal was that publicans would bid for the right to collect a specified amount of taxes in a given region.  If you won the bid, it was up to you to collect at least the amount of taxes you were assigned, and anything you collected over your expenses and what Rome needed was yours to keep.  The potential for abuse in such a system is obvious, which may be why Jesus in later life used the hated figure of a publican in a parable as an example of someone who would have plenty of sins to ask forgiveness for. 

Firms such as Redflex are not exactly in the position of the publicans of ancient Rome, but the system under which they operate is edging toward a publican-like tendency of open-ended revenue collection that profits both the firm and the government it works for, at the expense of the public at large.  The abuses of the publican system came to an end with the Roman republic itself.  I am not recommending such a radical fix here.  But we can take the advice and examples of Juvenal and Jesus to give a hard look at technological systems that create perverse revenue incentives that reward abuse on the part of governments and firms that provide the technology.

Sources:  John J. Miller's article "The Red-Light District" appeared in the Dec. 31, 2014 print edition of National Review, pp. 24-26.  I also referred to an article on stop-arm cameras posted by a Fox News TV station in Washington, DC at, and to the Wikipedia articles on Juvenal and "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"

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