Privatized Traffic Law Enforcement Has Familiar Problems with Red-Light and Speed Camera Ticketing

In ancient times, rulers relied on a practice now known as “tax farming” in which tax collection was outsourced to other groups or individuals who maintained order in particular areas and passed on revenue to the monarch. The abuse that resulted from this system is thought to be one reason for the fall of the Roman Empire.

In modern times, governments are again turning to private companies to enforce certain laws and charge fees. A new report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, titled Caution: Red Light Cameras Ahead; The Risks of Privatizing Traffic Law Enforcement and How to Protect the Public details how as many as 700 communities across as many as 28 states contract out to private companies that install and operate automated red-light or speed cameras and then send tickets in the mail to the owners of cars caught on film for legal violations. According to the report, one in five Americans live in a jurisdiction that outsources traffic ticketing this way.

Drivers are finding this out the hard way by receiving steep tickets in the mail from a ticketing vendor. Drivers have sometimes felt unjustly fined if they were turning right at a red light or another maneuver they believe no human police officer would ticket them for. The industry claims that the cameras prevent crashes and save lives, and some studies suggest they do, but other studies find that red-light cameras increase injuries.

Like with the ancient Romans, the report finds a host of abuses. For example, the people of Baytown, Texas were confronted with a breach of contract lawsuit after they voted in November 2010 to terminate their camera system. A lengthy legal battle ensued, and the settlement required the town to pay $1 million in exchange for the removal of the cameras. Bell Gardens, California signed a contract with Redflex Traffic Systems that allowed the camera vendor to penalize the city if it decided to alter the duration of yellow lights at monitored intersections.

Since company profits depend on driving up ticket revenue, it's not surprising that companies also wield political power to influence local decisions. According to the Orlando Sun Sentinel, the company American Traffic Solutions spent over $1.3 million on lobbying activities in the past four years. Since 2006, Redflex hired over 100 registered lobbyists to represent their interests in 18 states.

These kinds of abuses have sparked a citizen backlash. Sixteen municipalities have held public referendum against these programs, all successful. Major cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta, Raleigh and Houston have rejected red-light cameras after initially approving them.

Almost every state with red-light cameras has spurred citizen opposition groups with mad-as-hell names like “BanTheCams,” “Wrong on Red,” and “Highway Robbery.”

Drivers of course should obey the law and have always griped about tickets; but Americans rightly feel outraged when they believe others game the system to use the law as a way to pick their pockets. If people are forced to pay fines, they want to know that People want to know that police charges against them are fair. They get incensed to discover that contracts with private camera vendors can dictate policing and safety practices even when the public has weighed in against those practices. It's not that police are entirely removed from camera ticketing – they still must view the photo and stamp their final approval on the final approval – but the judgment of public officials is removed and after-the-fact.

People can also rail against camera vendor contracts that seem unreasonable or motivated by greed. For all their human frailties, police officers are expected to act justly, not merely to follow contractual limits when exploiting people. Back in 1980, social scientist Michael Lipsky coined the phrase “street-level bureaucrats” to describe how front-line public servants like police and firefighters inevitably must exercise judgment to decide how to translate the law. Police treat a driver that races through a red light at a crowded school zone differently from a driver that makes a right turn at a deserted corner in the middle of the night.

It's not that automated ticketing technology is fundamentally evil. If a city has recurrent problems with injuries from red-light running at particular intersections and they have already tried alternative measures such as lengthening yellow light intervals and improving visibility, then an automated deterrent may prevent future injuries. The program can even be operated fully by the public. The Illinois State Police operate their own program using cameras to ticket dangerous speeders near highway work sites. That program has been without controversy.

The report suggests basic reforms to prevent problems with automated traffic enforcement contracting. Local officials considering the use of red-light traffic cameras should:

  • Put public safety first in decisions regarding enforcement of traffic laws-this includes evaluating privatized law enforcement camera systems against alternative safety 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 complete public control over all transportation policy decisions.
  • Retain the option to withdraw from a contract early if dissatisfied with service or its effects.
  • Ensure that the process of contracting with vendors is completely open, with ample opportunity for meaningful public participation.
  • Make information about the operation of privatized traffic law enforcement fully transparent and accessible online.
  • Not permit information about individual vehicles and drivers gathered by camera vendors to be used for any purpose other than the enforcement of traffic laws.
  • Consider establishing state standards to help cities avoid contracting for automated enforcement systems that are not justified or when alternatives make more sense.

If municipalities don't create better ground rules for privatizing traffic law enforcement, Americans may become even more cynical about government's ability to protect the common good. When powerful corporations line up to produce revenue from fines on citizens, we need strong public protections against abuse.

In the meantime, it's a little scary to think what the next frontier of modern tax farming will be. Contractors examining our individual garbage bins and taking a share of the municipal citations they issue for imperfect sorting of waste? Municipalities bragging that housing codes are better enforced since they've hired private companies to take pictures of our homes and fine us for discrepancies with zoning records? Perhaps companies will send roving vans to examine the tags on our dogs and cats or check for overdue library books. Send your ideas by email to Phineas at pirg.org