Millions of Americans have had the same disorienting experience. They get a letter in the mail. It has a photo of their car, running a red light. They don’t remember it happening and the city that issued the ticket is not the city in which the incident occurred. And yet, it says they have to pay.
Red light cameras are sold as safety devices but increasingly, the public sees them as money-making scams that can actually make roads less safe.
They are losing ground with local and state governments too. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), an an auto industry-funded organization, reports that in 2013 red light camera programs fell by six percent as cities discontinue their programs around the country. San Rafael, California, Ellisville, Missouri, Knightdale, North Carolina, Santa Fe, New Mexico and Margate, Florida are some of the latest. And state legislatures in South Dakota, Missouri, Iowa, Ohio and Florida have proposed bills to ban the cameras altogether.
Having moved to Florida from New York, where I didn’t drive, I knew little about the cameras or the debate surrounding them, until my boyfriend got a ticket.
“I swear I didn’t run that red light,” said Ryan Nerz, a TV producer at Fusion. “I have a stubborn side, and it told me not to pay it. I still haven’t.” In Florida, the tickets costs $158. In other places like California, they can run almost $500. Ouch.
WATCH: Everyone hates red light camera tickets. Here are eight tips on how to avoid getting one:
I decided to look into it further, which took me to St. Petersburg, Florida to meet Matt Florell, a man who has dedicated himself to getting the cameras outlawed.
THE ROBIN HOOD OF RED LIGHT CAMERAS
“Some people can name their favorite quarterback and all their stats,” Florell said. “I can rattle off statistics on red light cameras.”
Florell, who runs a computer software company, is an anti-red light camera activist. He started researching red light cameras when they were approved in Florida in 2010.
He built a website, st.petecameras.org, with red light camera studies and news, attends city council meetings and speaks with public officials, goes to intersections to time yellow lights to make sure they meet federal standards. All this from a guy who has never gotten a ticket himself.
“I am interested in technology purportedly being used for safety,” he said.
Studies on the cameras safety benefits offer mixed results, so Florell decided to do his own study analyzing 264 intersections in more than 20 jurisdictions across the country. His conclusion–red light cameras don’t make intersections more safe, in fact they often increase crashes.
A new report in Florida reached the same conclusion. The Office of Policy Program Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) found that total crashes at red light camera intersections in the state increased by 12 percent, including side angle and rear-end crashes. It also says fatal crashes at red light camera intersections are down by a staggering 49 percent, a figure that camera proponents hail as proof of the cameras’ effectiveness.
However, Florell says the report doesn’t track whether fatalities are down due to fewer incidents of red light running or for some other cause, like improved car safety. And red light running accounts for only two percent of auto deaths.
“It’s more likely to run into a ditch than get hit by a red light runner and dying,” Florell said.
He says fatal crashes have also declined in 26 states that don’t use the cameras.
WATCH: Red light cameras are supposed to prevent crashes, but studies show that they increase rear-end collisions. Here are some crashes caught by red light cameras:
PITFALLS OF FOR-PROFIT LAW ENFORCEMENT
While the safety benefits remain unclear, no one disputes how profitable red light cameras have been for some municipalities and states.
More than a million drivers in Florida alone were issued red light camera citations last year, bringing in $120 million in fines, according to a state report. That’s 200 percent more than when the cameras were installed three years ago.
That money is split between the state, cities and municipalities, which pay the camera companies a flat fee based on individual contracts. The OPPAGA report states that municipalities pay the companies between $4,250 and $4,750 per camera every month.
Red light cameras are part of a multimillion dollar industry operated by private vendors. The industry leaders in the US are Arizona-based Redflex and American Traffic Solutions. They generate lots of cash and lots of controversy.
Redflex recently lost a $100 million dollar contract in Chicago due to an alleged bribery scandal. And more problems may loom on the horizon. A former employee-turned-whistleblower has also accused the company of bribery in 13 other states, which the company denies.
American Traffic Solutions or ATS, backed by Goldman Sachs, gives hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions in places it gets contracts. In Florida, where they operate most of the red light camera programs, they have more than 20 full time lobbyists in Tallahassee, the state capital.
“I don’t know if it was watching too much Robocop when I was a kid, but for profit law enforcement never seems like a good idea,” Florell said.
Charles Territo, the ATS spokesperson, says the number of citations issued does not affect the company’s bottom line, since they get flat fees per camera.
He defends red light cameras saying they change drivers’ behavior, making roads safer. “Cameras provide evidence that a violation was committed,” says Territo, “Some drivers aren’t willing to accept that.”
SHORTER YELLOWS: A SLIPPERY SLOPE
After red light cameras were approved in Florida in 2010, the Florida Department of Transportation made a slight tweak in the state’s traffic engineering manual to allow cities to lower the duration of yellow light intervals.
In some cases, they ordered local officials to lower yellow lights at intersections. That’s what local Tampa TV reporter Noah Pransky uncovered in emails by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).
“That meant more citations could be written because there was less time to come to a stop or get through the intersection,” Florell said.
The Florida Department of Transportation vowed to increase yellow light times to 3.4 by the end of 2013.
Too late for my boyfriend, my initial reason for looking into red light cameras. In his case, the yellow light was very short, but technically legal. Had it happened just a few weeks later, he would have never gotten the ticket.
The reduced yellow light times have not only generated millions of dollars in citations but also made roads less safe. A Federal Highway Administration report shows shorter yellows lead to a higher crash rate, while increasing the yellow light by a second can slash car crashes and red light running violations in half.
And Florell has found more problems.
The City of St. Petersburg did not take slopes into account when setting their yellow light intervals. Slopes affect the amount of time needed to come to a complete stop.
Florell paid $600 of his own money for a study that measured the slope at one intersection in the city.
He has calculated that drivers in the city have received nearly 2500 unfair tickets worth $394,000 in citations at slope intersections.
Since Florell’s study, the city has agreed to re-time the yellow lights at those intersections.
City councilman Charlie Gerdes, a proponent of red cameras, concedes the city of St. Petersburg dropped the ball. “We should be paying to do a grade study, says Gerdes. “Not Matt Florell.”
A CITIZEN MOVEMENT
All of the controversy has sparked public outrage across the state and the nation. In 2011, Los Angeles voted to remove its camera program, thanks in part to the work of anti-red light camera activist Jay Beeber, one of Florell’s heroes.
On March 6, Florell finally had a big win of his own: The City of St. Petersburg voted to remove its camera program.
Florell also wants refunds for people who received unfair tickets. In some places, that’s already happening. Last month, Winter Park, Florida started mailing out $90,000 worth of refunds.
He says it hasn’t been easy going through all the data and learning the laws. “It’s taken that level of work so that you can watch what the government is doing and question them when they aren’t living up to what they are supposed to be doing.”
Though Florell is fighting for a cause that’s not sexy, it hasn’t been a thankless job.
“There are so many things beyond our control that we just put up with on a daily basis, said Jon Dratch, one of the Florell’s employees that got a red light camera ticket. “That’s why I’m really grateful for what Matt does.”
CREDIT: Natasha Del Toro, Producer/Photographer Alice Brennan, Photographer Roberto Daza