A new study questions the wisdom of putting for-profit companies in charge of traffic safety.
More than 60 million Americans live in the 700 or so communities that have outsourced their street and highway traffic cameras, says consumer watchdog U.S. Public Interest Research Group in a report released Thursday. In return for a share of the revenue, cities allow private companies to place automated devices in strategic locations to catch speeders, red-light runners, and those who make only rolling stops before right-hand turns. Cameras capture a license-plate image, and a ticket is sent to the owner of the offending vehicle.
Those drivers face automated enforcement that emphasizes profit and in some cases heightens safety issues rather than solved them, the group says. (A recent Washington traffic analysis found a dramatic increase in rear-end collisions at an intersection patrolled by an automated red-light camera.)
"Automated traffic ticketing tends to be governed by contracts that focus more on profits than safety," Phineas Baxandall, the report's co-author, told the Associated Press.
Contracts with cities and towns often take safety decisions out of the proper hands, USPIRG says. For example, contracts can prevent cities from extending the length of yellow lights, or demand that cities issue a certain number of tickets. Politically savvy vendors lobby successfully not only to place automated systems, the group says, but to protect the programs from citizen pushback.
Cities that have voted to undo their automated enforcement programs can face huge penalties, USPIRG notes.
You broke the law: Pay up
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, on the other hand, remains a firm proponent of red-light cameras. Its June 2011 survey found a majority of drivers favored their continued use, even in cities such as Houston where voters had rejected them.
The bigger issue, the IIHS maintains, is safety. Its analysis compared cities with cameras to those without, attributing 159 saved lives to their use.
Forty states allow automated traffic enforcement, but not all treat tickets the same way. Many handle the mailed citations as they do parking tickets: Pay up and it’s over. But others consider them to be moving violations, with the possibility of points against a driver’s record and penalties from the driver’s insurance company. (Here’s a list of current laws and penalties for states with automated enforcement, courtesy of the Governors Highway Safety Association.)
Those who perceive a flash as they cross an intersection usually wait up to two weeks to find out whether they’ve been nabbed. And then, they can look forward to their next insurance renewal, when they can find out whether this is the violation that puts the cheapest car insurance rates out of reach.
Changing the system
U.S.PIRG offered these recommendations to cities considering automated enforcement:
• Consider alternative safety options first, without regard to potential revenues.
• Ensure that contract language is free from potential conflicts of interest.
• Avoid direct or indirect incentives for vendors that are based on the volume of tickets or fines.
• Retain complete public control over all transportation policy decisions.
• Retain the option to withdraw from a contract early if dissatisfied with service or its effects.
• Ensure that the process of contracting with vendors is completely open, with ample opportunity for meaningful public participation.
• Make information about the operation of privatized traffic law enforcement fully transparent and accessible online.
• Do not permit information about individual vehicles and drivers gathered by camera vendors to be used for any purpose other than the enforcement of traffic laws.
• Consider establishing state standards to help cities avoid contracting for automated enforcement systems that are not justified or when alternatives make more sense.