Battle lines form over red-light cameras
- By William Matthews
- Sep 03, 2001
In Howard County, Md., red-light cameras are credited with reducing collisions
at inter.sections by as much as 44 percent.
But in San Diego, the cameras are on trial for "shaking down" thousands
of motorists with $271 fines that funneled more than $7 million into city
coffers and generated about $2 million to contractor Lockheed Martin IMS.
Highway safety expert Judith Stone is adamant that red-light cameras
But privacy specialist Jim Harper warns that they are the foundation
for a surveillance society.
There is a growing debate about red-light cameras vs. privacy and
technology vs. the Constitution and it is creating some unexpected political
partnering on Capitol Hill. For example, in a hearing before the House Subcommittee
on High.ways and Transit in July, such conservative law-and-order advocates
as Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), a former federal prosecutor, denounced the use
of automated cameras to catch red-light runners. Barr argued that such technology
"eviscerates" con.stitutional guarantees against unreasonable searches and
seizures and the right to confront one's accuser.
But liberal Washington, D.C., delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton defended
the decision to install red-light cameras in the District of Columbia, arguing
that police are overwhelmed by more serious crimes and need whatever help
they can get from technology to catch traffic violators. When the cameras
are properly used, they do not invade privacy, Norton contended.
Sensors trigger red-light cameras to take photographs of cars that drive
through red lights. But according to their critics, they pose serious problems.
Instead of photographing license plates, some cameras also photograph drivers
and interiors of cars, which critics say is an illegal invasion of privacy.
"At no point in the past two centuries has Americans' right to privacy
been more threatened," Barr declared.
"At traffic intersections in cities large and small, Americans are being
watched, their movements recorded, their persons and surroundings photographed
and their actions documented by their government," he said.
One of the most troubling aspects about the use of red-light cameras
is that they turn a key function of law enforcement over to private contractors,
said Marshall Hurley, a Greensboro, N.C., lawyer.
"Red-light surveillance cameras combine the worst traits of government
arrogance and corporate greed," he told subcommittee members. In many localities,
"the camera schemes are based on the concept of a government kickback" in
which companies that supply and operate the cameras collect a portion of
In North Carolina, it's $35 of each $50 fine. In San Diego, it's $70
of each $271 fine. "Both the government and its contractors have an immense
financial stake in the violation of traffic laws," he said.
And in North Carolina, tickets cannot be appealed in court, he added.
"There is the presumption that the owner of the motor vehicle is guilty
if his or her car is photographed by a red-light camera. A financial penalty
is imposed based on an absolute presumption of guilt without any judicial
In San Diego, motorists who have been ticketed have filed a class-action
suit contending that contractor Lockheed Martin IMS tinkered with sensors
and selected intersections with short yellow lights to maximize the number
of motorists who could be ticketed.
Lockheed Martin Corp. an.nounced in July that it is selling IMS to Affiliated
Computer Services Inc.
Former San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock, now a radio talk show host,
denounces red-light cameras for increasing the number of rear-end collisions
as motorists make sudden stops for short yellow lights. Hedgecock said he
wrecked his car when he rammed the back end of a truck that "jammed on his
breaks as the traffic light turned yellow" at a camera-equipped intersection.
Lengthening the time for yellow lights would cut red-light running as
effectively as installing red-light cameras, Hedgecock contends, adding
that a study by the city of Tempe, Ariz., reached the same conclusion. "But
here's the rub." Tempe also hired Lockheed Martin IMS to install red-light
cameras at a number of intersections, and "the Lockheed Martin contract
prevents the city of Tempe from extending the yellow light interval where
Lockheed's cameras are in place," he said.
Rep. Timothy Johnson (R-Ill.) denounced red-light cameras as "a bounty system"
and "clearly unconstitutional." The cameras violate Fourth Amendment protections
against unreasonable search and seizure and 14th Amendment guarantees of
due process and equal protection under the law.
Red-light cameras "are only the first installation of the Big Brother
infrastructure," said Harper, editor of Privacilla.org, a Web site dedicated
to privacy issues. Cameras that take snapshots of vehicles can easily be
replaced with video cameras. Combined with optical character recognition
and networked cameras, it would be possible to track cars as they move through
cities and on highways, he said.
Add databases, and it becomes possible to create permanent records of
the movements of autos.
There could be benefits, however. Carjackings might be reduced if criminals
knew they could be tracked. Missing persons might be more easily found,
And auto safety advocates boil at the idea that technology they consider
lifesaving could be discarded.
More than 750 people are killed each year in crashes involving red-light
runners, said Judith Lee Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto
Safety. "Opposition [to red-light cameras] seems like a double standard
Stone cites statistics to show that red-light cameras work. When cameras
were installed, red-light running was reduced by 68 percent in San Francisco;
92 percent in Los Angeles County; 70 percent in Charlotte, N.C.; and 44
percent in Fairfax County, Va., she said.
"We know red-light cameras work," Stone told the House subcommittee.
Moreover, the public overwhelmingly supports them, she said. Recent polls
show public support as high as 83 percent. "The American public is both
ready and anxious for us to act on its behalf to keep families safe," Stone
Some argue that privacy vanished long ago. People are routinely monitored
by surveillance cameras in stores, they leave detailed paper trails by using
credit cards and supermarket discount cards, and they leave electronic trails
by making phone calls and using the Internet.
But much of that is the private sector snooping and is less serious
than snooping by the government, Harper maintains. "Governments are the
only entities in society with legal power to enter our homes without permission,
take our possessions and imprison us," he said.
"We are a free country and a free people who reject the idea of being
monitored by government when we are going through our daily lives peacefully
and lawfully," Harper said.