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Red Light Cameras - Public Good or Public Menace?

Across the United States, more and more cities have already installed video cameras at stoplight intersections, or are establishing plans to add them soon. And why wouldn’t they install them? Each city that has added these robotic, ever-vigilant justice machines to their stoplight intersections has reported a considerable amount of revenue generated from them, which can then be rolled back into the city to stimulate economic growth. Add on the promise of safer roads, fewer accidents, and some additional job creation and it seems like a win-win situation. In the real world, however, fool-proof win-wins never come without strings attached, and there are pros and cons to the use of these red light cameras like any other debate.

Citizens adamantly against the use of red light cameras at intersections address the real-world use of the cameras, rather than the hypothetical idealistic use that is always introduced by lawmakers and public officials. Many would say the fact that they are unbiased is a positive value, but they are incapable of human judgment and consequently cannot distinguish between an insignificant violation and a serious violation. One study in Chicago has recently shown that the vast majority of tickets issued by one red light camera weren’t for reckless violations like running red lights, but for failing to completely stop when making a right turn. Actual police officers would never issue a ticket for something so insignificant, but the cameras only know “right” and “wrong.”

The most vehement argument against their installation is that they focus on revenue accruement, not traffic safety. While they do seem to reduce accidents and running red lights, they also ticket a large population of drivers who don’t deserve the $500 fines. For the most part, these red light cameras are installed and operated through out-of-state companies like Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions, so the revenue generated from the cameras largely does not get rolled back into the city coffers. With this in mind, installing these red light cameras in some cases can actually result in a net revenue loss for the city once legal fees and salaries associated with camera review and ticket enforcement are taken into account.

Still, even with all of the potential points against the installation of traffic and red light cameras, they have shown results in many cities across the United States. Most cities report that intersections with red light cameras installed show a reduced frequency in automobile accidents, traffic violations, and pedestrian fatalities. Once a ticket is issued for a violation, like driving through a red light, the likelihood of repeat offense at that intersection is severely reduced as well, which leads to safer roads in general as everyone becomes more careful. The red light cameras at some intersections also seem to promote vigilance from drivers at other intersections too, since they cannot be sure which intersections have cameras installed or not at first.

In plenty of cities with these cameras installed, the ideas that most tickets are issued for non-serious offenses and that revenue is generated on a per-ticket basis have been combatted as well. Most tickets issued by the red light cameras in these cities are now reviewed by police officers first before the citation is sent to the offender, which both creates more salaried law enforcement jobs and adds a human judgment variable to the citation process so that minor traffic violations aren’t treated with the same severity as major offenses. Furthermore, many corporations that install and operate red light cameras opt out of per-ticket revenue generation and make deals that allow both the city and themselves to profit. These profits obtained by the city can then be used to stimulate commerce and jumpstart the city economy, improve public services, and repair structural deficiencies.

Both sides of the debate make valid points to the use or abuse of red light cameras in cities across the country. Whether or not the safety encouraged by the cameras is optimal or worth the possible misappropriation of revenue is likely different within each city, depending on the decisions made by law enforcement officials and the operating corporations. It’s possible that these cameras may not last long, but it is unlikely that the debate will come to an end any time soon.