The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Red-light cameras under scrutiny in state legislatures

A red-light camera at Chainbridge Road and Lee Highway in Fairfax County, just outside of Washington (Larry Morris/The Washington Post)
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Everybody hates getting a traffic ticket. What they hate even more, it seems, is when the ticket isn’t delivered by a uniformed police officer, but by mail a few days later, thanks to a camera that caught them speeding or zipping through a red light.

Now, legislatures in several states are working to outlaw those cameras.

On Wednesday, the South Dakota state House passed a bill that would ban both red-light cameras and speeding cameras by a whopping 69-1 margin. A Missouri state House panel on Monday heard testimony on a similar bill. The Iowa Department of Transportation has proposed a measure to require cities to justify their need for photo enforcement cameras, and a 2013 bill to ban them outright is still pending before the Ohio legislature.

Opponents of the red-light cameras span the partisan divide, complaining of invasions of privacy or back-door tax increases — even that the red-light cameras result in more fender-benders at intersections. In some states, the ACLU is a prime driver behind camera-banning legislation; in others, it’s tea party conservatives pushing the bills.

“Red light cameras are used primarily to raise money, and not to improve safety,” state Rep. Peggy Gibson (D), lead sponsor of the South Dakota bill, told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. Michael Carter, a former red-light camera judge, told the Missouri legislature the cameras are a form of “indirect taxation.”

To be certain, red-light cameras have been a huge revenue-driver for many cities and states. In the District of Columbia alone, drivers were nabbed more than 91,000 times in fiscal year 2012, netting the city $13 million from red-light camera fines and $72 million from speed cameras. One camera, on westbound New York Avenue, accounted for an incredible $794,500 in a single year.

Twenty four states and the District of Columbia allow cameras that catch drivers sneaking through red lights. Fourteen states and the District use cameras to catch speeders.

But the number of jurisdictions that use cameras is dropping. A forthcoming study from the libertarian Reason Foundation shows about 500 jurisdictions use cameras to enforce traffic laws, down from a peak of about 700 localities in 2011. In California alone, 60 cities and counties have stopped using red light cameras.

Lawmakers in about half the states considered bills last year relating to traffic cameras. Five states considered banning cameras, though none of the proposed legislation passed. As it stands, Arkansas, New Jersey and Wisconsin prohibit speed cameras, while seven states — Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina and West Virginia — ban red-light cameras.

Three states, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Minnesota, have no laws governing cameras at all.

But not every state is ready to kill the cameras. A measure to ban them failed to pass a Virginia state House committee earlier this week, while the prime sponsor of a similar bill in Iowa dropped his proposed legislation after the Transportation Department proposed its own alternative.