The shutters clicked, the grainy photos were sent to the red-light violators and St. Louis raised $4.1 million last year. Now the vehicular version of “Candid Camera” may be ending, as it has in other U.S. towns and cities.
A circuit court judge in St. Louis nullified its camera law Feb. 11, two months after a Missouri appeals court judge struck down a similar suburban ordinance. Those rulings have added to the legal and political blowback across the nation against a system whose safety benefits are disputed while its revenue-generating efficiency is not.
“All it is is a money grab,” said Joe Brazil, a St. Charles County, Missouri, councilman jailed last year for failing to pay a $100 fine in the St. Louis suburb of St. Peters. “It’s almost like racketeering. It’s not about safety.”
Opponents in Missouri, New Jersey and other states are proving that city hall can be defeated with court challenges and political pressure. Even as advocates promote cameras’ ability to save lives, the number of communities using them has dropped about 6 percent since 2012 to 509, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Virginia. Lawmakers in five states, including Ohio and Florida, are considering banning or limiting their use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Cameras are connected to traffic signals at intersections to photograph vehicles that go through red lights, and tickets are typically mailed to vehicle owners, according to the Insurance Institute. The first program was started in 1992 in New York City, the group said.
While drivers have long complained about tickets from real-life police officers, those transactions afford the opportunity for a face-to-face exchange, even if it’s often unpleasant. The Orwellian nature of traffic cameras, used in 21 states, has provoked charges they are inaccurate, unconstitutional and fueled solely by the desire of municipalities and camera companies to raise money.
Red-light cameras in Florida alone raised $119 million last year, according to a study released Feb. 7 by the legislatures’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.
The controversy exemplifies the tension in local governments between protecting public safety within the limits of financial resources and residents’ tolerance. It can be a difficult balance.
Brick Township, which in 2010 became one of New Jersey’s first municipalities to install cameras, shut them down Feb. 17, after generating 74,000 tickets. The treasury of the seaside town collected $800,000 in fines last year alone.
“It’s wrong to try to balance a budget on ill-gotten gains from a program that’s premised on safety,” said Mayor John Ducey, adding that police data showed crashes actually increased in the community of 75,000.
“I can find other ways to have some savings and bring in revenue,” Ducey said.
Supporters say cameras promote safety and allow police money and time to fight serious crime. In St. Louis, which is appealing this month’s ruling, the force has shrunk about one-third in the past 15 years, said Chief Sam Dotson. The city has cameras at 35 intersections.
“I just don’t have the resources to be able to focus on traffic enforcement like we used to,” Dotson said, adding that the system has “reduced accidents, kept people safe and allowed me to focus on crime reduction and not traffic enforcement.”
Chicago, which carries the largest per-capita debt load among the 25 largest U.S. cities, has reaped more than $300 million since 2003 from cameras at 190 intersections. New York will expand its program as part of a plan to reduce speed in the city, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Feb. 20.
The Insurance Institute issued a report in 2011 showing that large cities with longstanding camera systems reported 24 percent fewer crashes from running red lights. In 2012, 683 people were killed and an estimated 133,000 were injured in such crashes, according to the organization.
Cameras lose support when programs give the impression that the main goal is to generate revenue, said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the institute. Communities must clearly communicate that devices are being installed at intersections with a history of crashes, he said.
“The states that have had the courage to use cameras in the face of opposition of a vocal minority are saving lives,” he said.
Courage aside, the debate is complicated by conflicting safety claims. In Florida, the legislative study found that while fatal crashes decreased at intersections on state roads with cameras, other collisions increased.
The same study found that camera revenue in 79 jurisdictions soared 215 percent in the past three fiscal years, to $119 million. Individual fines are $158, nearly half of which goes to pay camera vendors, the study said. Critics say the results don’t justify the money cities collect from residents or the privacy that is taken away.
“It’s a back-door tax increase,” said state Senator Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg and a sponsor of a bill to ban the cameras.
The issue is the way ordinances are enforced, said Charles Territo, spokesman for Tempe, Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions Inc., which has the camera contract with St. Louis and, formerly, Brick Township.
“There isn’t a court yet that has ruled the use of the cameras is illegal,” Territo said.
The Missouri Court of Appeals ruled that ordinances are unconstitutional because they presume a vehicle’s registered owner was driving the car photographed. The law effectively forces owners to prove they weren’t driving when ticketed, the court said.
Opponents also say the claim of protecting traffic safety is undermined because the city doesn’t count violations toward the loss of a license. Theoretically, said St. Louis lawyer Ryan Keane, someone could blow through 100 red lights and still be driving. Keane successfully argued against a red-light camera law in the suburb of Arnold.
“On a gut level they are fundamentally abhorrent,” he said. “It’s a system being abused.”
A Missouri Court of Appeals judge ruled last December the law’s “primary and fundamental purpose” was profit.
Several St. Louis area suburbs suspended their camera programs until legal issues are settled. Although St. Louis obtained a stay of the circuit court order, fines are being placed in an escrow account until the state’s highest court rules.
Territo said the attacks on camera systems are nothing new. In the meantime, he said, the technology is expanding for use in school buses, stop signs and cross-walks.
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