Frown, You’re on Red-Light Camera!
RED-LIGHT cameras have your number.
If you drive through a monitored traffic signal that is red before you enter the intersection, a camera is triggered, your license plate is read by an evaluator at a computer, and if you are not in a funeral procession or driving an ambulance, you may get a color photograph of your car breaking the law. And a hefty fine.
Around the country, several hundred such robot cameras have been installed, with more on the way. In New York City, there are 30, generating 200,000 tickets a year.
Law enforcement officials say that the cameras have reduced accidents and the time police officers spend chasing reckless drivers and doing paperwork.
”Red-light-running accidents are the worst,” said Lieut. Glenn A. Hansen, the commander of the automated enforcement division in Howard County, Md. ”They happen at high speed and are often of the T-bone type” — when the front of someone’s car hits another car’s middle — ”the most dangerous. We have had a 47 percent decrease in accidents” at intersections with red lights.
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Drivers are usually contrite when they see the evidence. ”Yes, that was clearly me. This is fair. I deserved this one,” — which is how Kay MacIntosh, a Baltimore magazine editor, recalled her reaction when she received a ticket for driving through an intersection in Brooklandville, Md., last June.
At the same time, the cameras have been criticized by civil-rights groups who are concerned that the photographs could be used to track people’s movements. Others are concerned about conflicts of interest regarding the operation and enforcement of the systems.
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The pole-mounted, breadbox-size cameras installed by Electronic Data Systems and Lockheed Martin Corporation are activated only when a traffic light turns red. The camera then takes a photograph showing the car approaching the intersection before the white ”stop bar” and the red light overhead, and another showing the car in the middle of the intersection, the red light still visible. The pictures, along with a high-magnification shot of the license plate, are sent to the car’s registered owner as a ”photo ticket.” The owner is liable, even if he or she was not driving. Most states do not assess points for these violations.
The costs for installing and maintaining the cameras can be considerable: one contractor estimated that it can total $80,000 an intersection, including the camera, which can cost about $50,000. Wires must be placed in the pavement to sense cars approaching the stop bars; cameras need to be mounted on poles; and the film must be reloaded manually daily. (Digital camera images do not offer enough resolution.)
But the costs are more than covered by the fines that are collected — $75 a ticket in most states, more than $200 in California. In some instances, contractors pay for not only the installation and maintenance but also for interpreting the images and collecting the money (the percentage they keep differs with each contract) — services that stir criticism.Editors’ PicksThe 10 Most Influential Films of the Decade (and 20 Other Favorites)Real Estate Thought It Was Invincible in New York. It Wasn’t.Here’s What’s Happening in the American Teenage BedroomContinue reading the main story
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”It’s a conflict of interest to have companies that profit being the enforcers and in a position to say who has to pay a ticket,” said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.
A system operated by Lockheed Martin for the government of Washington D.C. mailed 20,000 tickets to drivers who were caught in a trap in which a midblock blinking yellow signal occasionally turned red to let cars out of a parking garage.
”This camera actually caused several accidents a day as people slammed on their brakes when the flash went off,” Mr. Anderson said, because people driving down the road suddenly saw the camera’s flash go off at the blinking yellow light, braked and were then hit from behind.
”After we complained and there was media coverage, they took the camera down and said the last 3,000 people didn’t have to pay,” Mr. Anderson said. ”They haven’t refunded the other fines, though. In Maryland, the contractors work for the police, and that’s better.”
Lockheed Martin deferred questions regarding the incident to the Washington police, who defended their actions. ”Red-light running was down 62 percent at that signal in the months the camera was in operation,” said Kevin Morison, a spokesman for the police department. ”The theory was to reduce red-light running at that signal and the major intersection beyond it at the same time. In hindsight, though, maybe that wasn’t the best theory.”
Administrators of the camera systems say that public perception and trust are crucial in changing driver behavior, and that officials work hard to make the systems accountable. ”We go the extra mile to weed out gray-area tickets,” Lieutenant Hanson said. ”The front wheel must be before the stop bar, the car must be traveling at a certain speed, and we do not allow short yellow signals.” Federal regulations call for a three-second to six-second yellow duration at normal city speeds, and longer for high-speed roads.
THE red and yellow intervals and the car’s speed are printed at the top of the pictures.
Despite the advantages, the issues of privacy continue to be raised. ”While we are firmly in favor of reducing accidents, we are concerned about ‘mission creep’ ” — when information is collected for one purpose and then used for another — ”with the information gathered,” said Emily Whitfield, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union. ”We find it troubling that they are capturing more than the vehicle, like direction and time. The movements of innocent people can be tracked.”
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Ms. Whitfield pointed out that last year, it was reported in The Washington Post that the United States Secret Service helped a New Hampshire company with financial assistance and advice in its efforts to buy driver-license data from some motor-vehicle bureaus.
In California, legislators decreed that cars be photographed from the front, showing the faces of people in the front seat, ostensibly to ensure that the wrong person not be fined. But some people might not wish to be documented this way.
In Maryland and elsewhere, the law prohibits a contractor or an insurance company from using data that can be collected from the cameras. Police use is not ruled out.
Both E.D.S. and Lockheed are defense contractors, with long ties to the intelligence community. But representatives for both companies said that invasion of privacy concerns were unfounded. ”Lockheed Martin has the most secure systems in the world,” said Kathleen Dezio, a company spokeswoman. ”It can only be accessed by the local governments.”
Bill Ritz, an E.D.S. marketing manager, said: ”E.D.S. has been handling sensitive public information for decades, like health insurance, credit cards, banking, driver records and tax programs. There hasn’t been a problem that I’m aware of in maintaining privacy. We take that responsibility very seriously.”
Some drivers try to put tinted plastic covers on their license plates. Web operations like Radarbusters.com sell filters that interfere with the viewing of license plates from side or overhead angles.
Online discussion groups offer information on red-light cameras, some useful, some not. A common excuse involves telling a judge that an ambulance was chasing you into an intersection (not practical; the judge can clearly see if that is the case). Questions pop up, like whether obstructing the view of a license plate is illegal (yes), or whether throwing mud on a plate is an innocuous dodge (maybe, but it can still get you stopped by police). Another choice, of course, is to obey the law.