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The Danger and Rampant Corruption of Traffic Light Cameras

The ongoing IRS scandal has struck such a nerve with the public because it is a clear example of a prying, ever-present government abusing its revenue-raising power and succumbing to the temptation of easy corruption. There are few things more outrageous with regard to the government’s ability to fund its own corrupt practices–but the latest scandal out of Florida may be one of those cases.

Media Trackers points to this investigation by Florida’s WTSP-St. Petersburg 10 News, which notes that the Florida Department of Transportation instituted a particularly dangerous way to wring more money out of motorists, and crossed federal standards to do so. At issue are the traffic light cameras, an unsafe plague on roadways rife with corruption across the country. The cameras are installed to catch motorists violating traffic rules, but the lawbreakers are usually on the other side of the cameras. From WTSP:

The 10 News Investigators discovered the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) quietly changed the state’s policy on yellow intervals in 2011, reducing the minimum below federal recommendations. The rule change was followed by engineers, both from FDOT and local municipalities, collaborating to shorten the length of yellow lights at key intersections, specifically those with red light cameras (RLCs).

While yellow light times were reduced by mere fractions of a second, research indicates a half-second reduction in the interval can double the number of RLC citations — and the revenue they create. The 10 News investigation stemmed from a December discovery of a dangerously short yellow light in Hernando County. After the story aired, the county promised to re-time all of its intersections, and the 10 News Investigators promised to dig into yellow light timing all across Tampa Bay.

The practice of reducing yellow light times without notifying motorists was blamed for at least one recent traffic death near Tampa, which prompted further investigation. The danger of the traffic light cameras–even without manipulating light times–is nothing new. As the Star-Ledger reported a few months ago, a study in New Jersey found that the installation of traffic light cameras resulted in increased accidents at those intersections, including a 20-percent rise in rear-end collisions.

Aside from the life-threatening risk to motorists and passengers in those accidents, the Star-Ledger noted that according to the study the “crash severity cost,” which calculates the cost of property and vehicle damage, as well as medical care for the crash victims and the expense to the municipality of emergency response, increased by about $1.2 million. The cameras are putting lives at risk every day, so why use them? Back to WTSP:

Red light cameras generated more than $100 million in revenue last year in approximately 70 Florida communities, with 52.5 percent of the revenue going to the state. The rest is divided by cities, counties, and the camera companies. In 2013, the cameras are on pace to generate $120 million.

“Red light cameras are a for-profit business between cities and camera companies and the state,” said James Walker, executive director of the nonprofit National Motorists Association.

They are a cash cow. But a “for-profit business between cities and camera companies” that incentivizes making the roads more dangerous for citizens doesn’t sound like a particularly ethical undertaking for the government. As it turns out, “ethical” is not a word often associated with how the traffic cameras are operated. As Holman Jenkins recently explained in the Wall Street Journal, the cameras have become a sleazy new form of taxation, and “When governments are engaged in sleazy new forms of taxation, sleaze happens.”

Jenkins points out that if you’re looking for corruption, Chicago is a good place to start–and in fact the Chicago traffic light camera regime has been engulfed in a graft scandal. Jenkins noted that in Baltimore, traffic light cameras were ticketing motionless vehicles, and have come under fire in Los Angeles and New York as well. “Ticket-racketeering has been, let’s just say, a contending motivation with safety since the automobile age was born,” Jenkins writes.

Even if Florida DOT officials don’t read out-of-state newspapers, they still can’t claim they weren’t warned, as WTSP makes clear:

Numerous U.S. Dept. of Transportation (USDOT) documents provide guidance to municipalities on how to install and operate RLC intersections. But FDOT and Florida communities are by-and-large ignoring those recommendations when it comes to yellow light intervals.

USDOT/Federal Highway Administration (FHA) report said cities should not use speed limit in the yellow interval equation because it results “in more red light violations and higher crash rates.”

Traffic light cameras aren’t about safety, because they diminish the safety of motorists. They are about money. And the fact that they are rife with corruption and deceit, and increase their financial gain by scamming drivers into unnecessary risks makes them, in many cases, morally indistinguishable from outright theft.


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