Red-Light Cameras Catch Criminals, Not Innocents

Posted on June 21, 2002 | Type: In the News
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We were a bunch of grumpy scofflaws, sitting in a defensive-driving class, nerves still raw over being caught in some act of traffic illegality.

So, when the topic of red-light cameras came up, the reaction was predictable - viscerally negative.

But this is not a reaction confined to just folks already caught in the act. Many others have raised serious privacy issues.

And I have to admit. I don't get it.

A recent report by Solveig Singleton of the Competitive Enterprise Institute [published by the Goldwater Institute], didn't do much to clear it up for me. The report does, however, make some common-sense suggestions on how we can make sure these public eyes on our intersections jibe with due-process protections.

But about privacy. These are, after all, cameras in public intersections, observing what is clearly observable by you, me or Officer Joe. Nonetheless, Singleton says they should be used as a last resort, even while she acknowledges that these cameras can help stretch manpower by being where officers can't be all the time.

She cites the potential for abuse of privacy.

When it comes to search and seizure, the police cannot pull you over willy-nilly and force you to open your trunk. There is indeed a privacy aspect to car ownership.

But photographing what is in plain view on a public thoroughfare is pretty far from what we traditionally view as search and seizure. If a police officer sees you run a red light, he or she stops you. What's the difference if a camera snaps a photo of you so authorities can hold you accountable later? Video footage from a convenience-store stickup is admissible as evidence, right?

These intersection cameras are not rolling to capture everyone passing through at all times. Only an illegal act triggers the shutter.

OK, but these cameras are really just another way for cities to raise money, folks charge.

It wouldn't surprise me a bit if they were mostly about revenue, both what we can squeeze from violators and the money we save in officer manpower. But we need only stop running red lights to keep that money in our pockets and, in the process, fewer people run red lights.

The U.S. House, spurred by Majority Leader Dick Armey last year, had hearings on the red-light camera "scam." In a report, he talked about "this Orwellian threat to our privacy" but argued mostly for lengthening yellow-light times.

A San Diego judge threw out 300 tickets because of "unreliable" cameras last year. In that same ruling, however, he said he could see nothing inherently unconstitutional about the cameras. Neither does Singleton.

She fears the slippery slope and that these cameras may subvert due process and present some conflict of interest. For instance: if a private contractor operates the cameras, has a stake in a lot of tickets being issued and then tweaks the system to make this happen.

She makes the common-sense point that a ticket should be sent only if the driver can be clearly identified.

After speaking with Singleton I definitely wouldn't put her in this category, but I suspect most folks talking about privacy, greedy municipalities and the alleged panacea of longer yellow-light times, are really more upset about the death of what they thought to be an immutable law of nature.

We used to believe that if no one saw us run a red light right as we ran it, we really didn't run one. (Hint: That falling tree in the forest is making noise).

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says more than 800 people die and 200,000 are injured yearly by folks doing this nationally. That's likely the key reason that many cities throughout the country have the cameras.

Singleton cites studies that show a decrease in accidents after the cameras are installed, but cites others that show no decrease or some increase.

Me, I think it's just common sense that, on the whole, the number of folks who rear-end you because you've stopped at a red light will be fewer than the number of folks who T-bone you or get T-boned by you if you're in an intersection you have no business being in.

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