NJPIRG study raises caution about red light camera programs

TRENTON – A report released Thursday criticized the use of red-light cameras, saying that the devices are more about raising revenues than about enhancing public safety.

In addition, the report says that any measures taken by towns and local officials to correct flaws have been hampered by lawsuits from vendors, among other things.

“Too many cities wrongly sign away power to ensure the safety of citizens on the roads when they privatize traffic law enforcement,” said Jen Kim of the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group, which conducted the research for its report, “Caution: Red Light Cameras Ahead; The Risks of Privatizing Traffic Law Enforcement and How to Protect the Public.”

 “Automated traffic ticketing tends to be governed by contracts that focus more on profits than safety,” Kim said. “That shouldn’t happen.”

The report found that municipalities in approximately half of the states (including 25 in New Jersey) have used the cameras that enable automated traffic law enforcement by contracting with private companies.

Many towns have found themselves in legal trouble when they attempt to change or update these contracts, according to NJPIRG.

Traffic engineering alternatives, such as lengthening yellow lights, are often the best way to reduce injuries from motorists who run red lights, the report said.

However, those solutions too often get ignored because contractors and sometimes municipalities are more focused on increasing revenue from tickets, according to the report.

In New Jersey, where the state Transportation Department began a five-year red-light camera pilot program in 2008, most towns have outsourced to vendors American Traffic Solutions (ATS) or Redflex.

Some cities, including Paramus, are considering adding red light cameras.

“Paramus’s contract discussions involve a fee-for-service structure which is the least problematic. It means the city will pay a flat fee, rather than one that incentivizes the camera company based on the number of tickets,” said Kim. “But, they should still also explore alternatives such as longer yellow lights.”

Last October it was discovered that the town of Glassboro, one of many to install red light cameras, had yellow lights that lasted shorter than the federal minimum of 4 seconds (in 35 mph zones). It was discovered after the former Harrison Township mayor received a ticket himself.

Redflex and ATS have both been the subject of “deals gone bad” in contracts with other cities, according to NJPIRG. The report detailed one example in Tempe, Ariz., where Redflex filed a lawsuit against the city for implementing a program where drivers could avoid fines by attending traffic school. In California, Bell Gardens signed a contract with Redflex that would penalize the city if it chooses to alter the length of its yellow lights.

“If these contracts put revenue first and safety last, it puts the public at risk. Safety should always be first,” Kim said.

“Because of the controls established by law for the red-light camera pilot program, many municipalities decided not to participate or withdrew before contracting with a vendor to avoid many of the pitfalls outlined in the report,” said Steve Carrellas, of the New Jersey chapter of the National Motorists Association.

Recommendations

The report recommends stronger guidelines to ensure that automated traffic enforcement programs must focus on improving road safety rather than ticket revenue.

NJPIRG recommended that deals between local governments and traffic camera vendors should:

· Put public safety first in decisions regarding enforcement of traffic laws – this includes evaluating privatized law enforcement camera systems against alternative options without regard to potential revenues.

· Ensure that contract language is free from potential conflicts of interest.

· Avoid direct or indirect incentives for vendors that are based on the volume of tickets or fines.

· Retain public control over traffic policy and engineering decisions, including cancelling contracts if the public is dissatisfied.

· Ensure that the process of contracting with vendors is completely open, with ample opportunity for public participation and each ticket listing where to find online data about automated ticketing for each intersection.

“We are lucky that New Jersey hasn’t yet seen the same level of controversy and lawsuits over red-light cameras found in states like California and Texas. Looking at the growth of this industry around the country, we want to learn from problems elsewhere to prevent them in New Jersey,” said Kim.

“Most of all, the law calls for the pilot program to end so any contract should have taken into account the anticipated end or a possible premature end if the New Jersey Department of Transportation rules that any particular camera system installation is creating safety issues,” added Carrellas.

 

NJPIRG study raises caution about red light camera programs