More Cities Turn Off Red-Light Cameras: Is It A Trend?

November 8, 2011
Red-light camera

Red-light camera

Traffic cameras were once heralded as a way of making streets safer and lightening the loads of thinly stretched police departments, but now, the tide seems to be turning -- even against the once-popular red-light camera. Are voters pushing back on Big Brother? And if so, will they be successful?

Last night, Albuquerque, New Mexico became the latest city to can its red-light camera program. Others like Houston, Texas and Los Angeles, California did so earlier this year. 

But among much of the public, support for red-light cameras remains strong. In New Jersey, 71% of voters think they're a great idea, and a recent study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety  found similar support in 14 cities across the U.S. In fact, the National Coalition for Safer Roads says that red-light cameras are important for public safety: after a legal challenge forced Albuquerque to turn off its red-light cams earlier this year, the number of red-light runners and speeders surged 600%


The public's divided opinions on red-light cams come down to the competing concerns of safety and privacy. On the one hand, citizens clearly like the idea of making streets safer, particularly for children. (In New Jersey, public support for red-light cams was strongest in school zones.)

On the other hand, citizens don't like the idea of being watched. Yes, people seem to understand that -- just like the noisy tree falling in the forest -- running a red light is still a crime, even if there's no police officer around to see it. But as a recent article in the Wall Street Journal points out, cameras often catch infractions so minor that no police officer would even bother to write them up. And of course, with no officer present, there's no way to explain any extenuating circumstances that might've gotten a driver out of the ticket in the first place.

But the biggest beef that citizens seem to have with red-light cams is that they're typically run by for-profit corporations. Cities outsource camera installation and enforcement to those companies, and in turn, the companies receive a percentage of the fines those cameras bring in. The general sentiment seems to be that cam systems are purely designed to drive revenue, and the corporations that install them are outsiders, profiting from hardworking locals. And worse, they're making those profits from the comfort of their offices, without putting in the same hard work that the city's police officers do.

Camera companies say that business is booming, so LA, Houston, and Albuquerque may be just blips on the radar -- the last throes of a public concerned about new technology. (Remember the hue and cry about making online payments a decade ago? How times change.) Then again, those cities could be at the leading edge of a new wave of anti-cam sentiment.

We're curious to know your own feelings about traffic cameras -- both speed cams and red-light cams -- and how they're being used in your hometown. Feel free to drop us a line, or leave a note in the comments below.

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