More of Arizona's cities and towns are considering the use of red light cameras. As they inch their way into the intersection of privacy and technology, cities should proceed with caution.
The debate over red light cameras often degenerates into a shouting match between traffic safety mavens and privacy advocates. "Safety first" proponents say driver safety should trump privacy, while "privacy first" proponents say privacy should trump safety. But in this case, both safety and privacy needs can be met.
The common sense resolution is to allow cameras on two conditions: Evidence must show the cameras will improve safety, and safeguards must be implemented to ensure due process, accountability, and respect for privacy.
Regarding the efficacy of red light cameras, cities should learn all they can from other localities. Some studies, including some which examined Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, and Mesa, show red light cameras effectively reduced collision rates at intersections. But other studies show no effect, and one study found that the cameras actually increased the incidence of rear-ending accidents, as drivers slammed on their brakes to avoid entering the intersections.
San Diego's experience is particularly instructive. San Diego police found that the number of accidents decreased at two intersections equipped with red light cameras, increased at four intersections, and held steady at nine others.
San Diego's experience also highlights the potential for abuse. A lawsuit revealed that the intersections most often selected for camera placement were those that were most likely to yield violations, such as intersections with yellow lights of short duration. That might make sense if the number of tickets issued reflected an increase in safety.
Unfortunately, many camera operators are paid by the number of tickets issued, rather than a reduction in the accident rate. That conflict of interest is present in Arizona. In Mesa, Lockheed Martin gets $48.50 for every $170 citation, and in Paradise Valley, Redflex Traffic Systems receives $35.00 per ticket.
The integrity of those systems would be vastly improved by paying contractors a flat fee, or by paying for actual reductions in accident rates: the ostensible purpose of the cameras. Furthermore, no entity with a financial interest in awarding more tickets should be involved in placing the cameras, or timing the lights at camera-equipped intersections.
In many cases, safety can be improved without the use of red light cameras. In Mesa, when three-second yellow lights were extended to four seconds, violations dropped 80 percent. At two intersections in Fairfax, Virginia, increasing the time of yellow lights from four seconds to 5.5 seconds decreased the number of red light violations by 96 percent.
Even if red light cameras prove to be effective in reducing accidents, their use must respect privacy and accord drivers due process.
The U.S. Constitution and privacy jurisprudence offer an instructive balance between the right to privacy and the legitimate use of police power. The Constitution does not bar police from searching or observing, even on private property. And red light cameras are posted in public places, where we cannot reasonably expect our actions to be private.
However, the Constitution does make police accountable to the judiciary. Before police can legally search our private papers or homes, they must go to a judge and get a warrant. In this way, one branch of government keeps an eye on the other.
While the warrant requirement does not apply to public property such as streets and intersections, the warrant model is a good one to use for red light cameras. It is reasonable to allow authorities to use technology to replace police officers on the street, but we must insist that human beings double-check the camera photos.
The Constitution also requires that authorities use due process before punishing offenders. Motorists should be allowed to appeal red light tickets to a truly independent body, such as a court, that has no financial interest in the outcome of the proceedings. An additional check against abuses would be to have an independent body review the ticketing procedures before issuing any tickets.
Between the questionable efficacy of red light cameras and the lack of adequate safeguards, we have reason to be leery of proposals for the cameras. If cameras are deployed carelessly, Arizonans may lose both privacy and due process in return for limited safety gains. Until these issues are resolved, cities should put the brakes on red light cameras.
--Solveig Singleton is a lawyer and senior analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and an associate scholar at the Goldwater Institute. She is the author of a paper on technology and privacy in Arizona released May 24 by the Goldwater Institute.