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Report Says Traffic Camera Revenue Can Influence Local Officials

Leaders may ignore safe driving alternatives in lieu of new funds.

Dependence on the revenue generated by fines for motoring violations recorded by traffic cameras could lead to local officials ignoring safe driving alternatives that do not create revenue, says a report by a national watchdog group.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s (USPIRG) report—Caution: Red Light Cameras Ahead—says the growing trend among cities to outsource traffic enforcement to red-light and speed camera vendors has led to about 20 percent of Americans living in communities that pay for-profit companies to install and operate traffic cameras.

“Automated traffic ticketing tends to be governed by contracts that focus more on profits than safety,” said Phineas Baxandall, USPIRG’s senior analyst for tax and budget policy and a co-author of the report. “Too many cities wrongly sign away power to ensure the safety of citizens on the roads when they privatize traffic law enforcement; that shouldn’t happen,” he said.

The report says approximately half of the states containing as many as 700 communities, affecting a combined total of more than 60 million people, outsource their street and highway camera systems. Municipalities in those states contract with private companies to operate cameras and issue citations to drivers. Citizens often object to privatized-forms of traffic enforcement and many municipalities have found themselves in legal trouble when they attempt to change or update these contracts, according to the report.

The type of contracts that are most problematic for the public are those that create a direct financial incentive to issue more tickets, the report says. Those contracts also tend to limit municipalities from implementing traffic-engineering alternatives, such as lengthening yellow lights because the focus is on increasing revenue from tickets.

The report recommends stronger guidelines to ensure that automated traffic enforcement programs focus on improving road safety, rather than ticket revenue. Deals between local governments and traffic camera vendors should:

  • Put public safety first in decisions regarding enforcement of traffic laws, that includes evaluating privatized law enforcement camera systems against alternative options 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 public control over traffic policy and engineering decisions, including cancelling contracts if the public is dissatisfied
  • Ensure that the process of contracting with vendors is completely open, with ample opportunity for public participation and each ticket listing where to find online data about automated ticketing for each intersection.

“This report is a must-read for city administrators in municipalities considering the addition of red light cameras, for authorities in communities that already have ticket cameras, and for motorists who are subjected to the privatized, for-profit automated traffic enforcement scheme known as red light cameras,” said Gary Biller, the executive director of the National Motorists Association.