Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Your town wants to install red light cameras

...if it hasn't already. Times are tough, no one wants to pay more who cares if we take a few Benjamins out of the bad guys' pockets to help our town make up its deficit?

Here's why:

Those who think red light cameras are a Good Thing are missing a few facts, which leads to people who consider themselves moral taking what turns out to be an immoral position—in the name of morality no less.

Any facts I cite can be independently verified by going to and using its links to go to the original sources. The website is opposed to red light cameras, but the links go to things like the Virginian and Texas departments of transportation and other such relatively objective sites.

Argument 1: The law is the law. Don’t try to beat the yellow light and you won’t get a ticket.

Um, the cameras aren’t red light cameras. They’re yellow light cameras, because they’re only profitable when used in conjunctions with the shortest yellow light timing state law allows. There have been cases—including ones here in California—where the yellow light timing was actually illegal, and numerous fines had to be refunded.

The shortest timing that’s legal is 3.0 seconds. When that’s increased to 4 seconds, the number of infractions drops by 80% and pretty much stays there. It stays there because those who miss the yellow by less than a second aren’t trying to “push the envelope.” It just takes them that long to make the go/no go decision once the light turns yellow and to actually stop. It this were not so, the level of infractions would be the same as for 3 second timing after a short period of adjustment. But that’s not what happens.

You don’t have to believe me, though. Try it. Have the yellow light set to 4 seconds and see what happens. Only you won’t get to, because Redflex (the Australian company that makes and operates the camera systems) will refuse to allow their systems to be installed unless you time the yellow light as short as is legally permitted.

Locally, some of the most “productive” cameras exploit a special loophole in California state yellow light timing standards: it lets you use the minimal 3.0 second yellow light on the left turns from expressways onto city streets. There’s reason to believe that turn lights from high speed roads are the biggest moneymakers among so-called red light camera setups.

Worst yet, few accidents are caused by drivers turning through intersections in the first place. They’re caused primarily by drivers barreling through intersections, going straight, around 5 seconds after the light has changed. They aren’t trying to beat the yellow. They don’t even know the light is there, either because they’re drunk, or stoned, or distracted, or being chased by the cops, or chasing someone else. Red light cameras mean nothing to such people.

Just such a driver nearly killed my spouse and me a few months ago, so I’ve seen what I’m talking about. And a few years ago I was nearly killed on my bicycle by a teenage girl running a stop sign on a residential cross street. She never saw the sign, judging from her behavior as she tore across a thoroughfare at 35mph. Luckily she did so during a lull in the traffic. Only I would have been killed if I hadn’t stood on my brakes. Otherwise it would have been carnage.

And sometimes the law isn’t legal. For example, dozens of California cities have illegal contracts with Redflex that indemnify Redflex if the ticket count goes below a certain level. This is unconstitutional, under the “fruit of the poison tree” principle explicitly stated in the Constitution. And appellate judges are finding this to be the case in one jurisdiction after another. But these cases only become a binding precedent if they’re “published,” and California’s municipal governments have been successful at preventingt this to date.

At some point someone who gets a ticket will have the resources to take a case to the state Supreme Court, and then we might see many millions of dollars of tickets being refunded by cities. Every one of these illegal contracts state that they aren’t illegal, by the way, just before the illegal clause. And no “traffic commissioner” is going to overturn a ticket on these grounds. And no appeal will have a prayer of success unless you spend a lot on a lawyer or are one yourself. This makes the local traffic courts conviction machines, and everyone associated with them knows it.

All this parallels what happened half a century ago when many cities ran speed traps—abnormally low speed limits with half-hidden signage and a cop permanently stationed there. But the state legislature banned speed traps. What we need today is an update banning time traps, forcing cities to use reasonable yellow light timing. That will eliminate red light cameras, but it shouldn’t. It only removes them as a source of profits. They still work fine at helping police track down dangerous red light runners. Which leads me to:

Argument 2: Besides catching bad guys, red light cameras help fill city coffers.

The problem with this is that it’s blatantly immoral. But let’s start on a practical level. Half the money leaves not just our city but our state, going to an Australian company. What’s left goes to fill in the gap between what most of us earn and the 40% or so more than us that employees in the public sector get for comparable work. But all of that money moves out of residents’ discretionary income.

So these fines succeed in moving over half the money away from the local economy--Starbucks and Mike’s Bikes and Shady Lane and Safeway--all of which surely need our business. It's income redistribution from private sector employees to public sector employees plus a foreign country.

And on a moral level…suppose a the fine for a crime should be $100, just to pull a number out of the air. Only you make the fine $400—which is about what a red light camera ticket runs. Assuming the crime was committed, and the law was legal, and you got the right perp, then that $100 is perfectly justifiable. The other $300 is theft, no different than the last time I was in La Paz, Mexico, and a couple of local cops tried to shake me down. If you read that local cops robbed people they caught committing crimes, you'd demand that they be fired, wouldn't you? How is this any different?

Two wrongs don’t make a right.

So I’m appalled that our town's mayor actually brags about all the money he hopes to make off people he regards as criminals—except, as I’ve shown here, many of them will be manufactured criminals.

Speed traps are immoral. Time traps are immoral. Stealing from criminals is still stealing, and, yes, it’s immoral.

And if you advocate soaking lawbreakers for far more than the gravity of the crime justifies—you’re immoral.


But then I thought of a Plan B:


Personally I think we should have red light cameras, and ticket drivers who miss the light.

But they will be a cost item, not a profit item, because they'd be for missing four second yellows instead of three second yellows, and the fine would be $100 instead of $400. $100 is a deterrent for anyone with limited income, while $400 isn't a deterrent for the affluent, while a point on your driver's record probably is.

If my town's poobahs really think people missing yellow lights is a significant safety hazard, they should be willing to spend money to reduce it. And if they want to avoid the moral hazard of fining-for-profit instead of fining-for-prevention, they'll be happy with the least amount that deters instead of the greatest amount they can get away with.

Note that nearly all other states have red light fines in the $25-$125 range.

As for rolling right turns--those aren't a hazard for hitting other cars, but they do present a hazard for bicylists who are themselves running a red light. I'm a bicyclist myself but I don't approve of cyclists interfering with others' right of way. OTOH a rolling right turn isn't the driver's right of way either.

I think my compromise would be to ticket rolling rights but for, say, $50 instead of $400+. That's a deterrent but it isn't exorbitant.

Remember, exorbitant fines make ordinary citizens resentful of the law. We all keep a little record book in our heads of every time we think we were victimized--particularly by those with the power of the state held over our heads. The result is a citizenry actively looking for ways to evade the law, and, among the more juvenile, for opportunites to vandalize state property or even private property.

State lawlessness begets personal lawlessness.

Using the cameras the way I described here would strike most people as reasonable and fair, even when they did get caught. The current system has the opposite effect.

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