Red-light-camera mania

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These days, critics of big government are justifiably focused on critiquing the federal government. But the reality is that city and county governments across the nation are just as enamored with nanny-statism.

It’s hardly a secret that local governments will do just about anything to increase their revenues, either by raising taxes or by finding other ways to fleece taxpayers. Increasingly, these efforts are backed by criminal sanctions.

Speed traps are classic revenue-raisers. However, the marriage of laser technology and digital cameras has enabled local governments to expand their power and control to a degree undreamed of until a few years ago. Private companies that manufacture and maintain such equipment are more than happy to enable governments in this effort and, of course, to share in the largesse.

Drivers in cities from New York to Florida are all too familiar with the now-ubiquitous “photo enforcement” signs at intersections and roadways. The fines for running afoul of these technological marvels are becoming nothing short of outrageous.

Drivers enjoying the roadways in California know this all too well. A recent report from the San Francisco Chronicle notes that drivers in the Golden State who have the misfortune of violating a traffic signal face, at $480, the “most expensive red-light camera tickets in the world.” A single camera produces more than $3 million annually for the City of Oakland. In all, the cameras bring some $130 million in revenues to state and local governments.

Supporters of red-light cameras insist that the devices make busy intersections safer. But drivers such as Roger Jones are becoming tired of such predatory tactics and are beginning to fight back. Jones says there are better ways to make intersections safer, such as slightly increasing yellow-light time. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Jones may be on to something. The Chronicle found that after Fremont, California added less than a tenth of a second to its yellow lights, “the city noted a 62 percent drop in red-light camera tickets.”

While police and supporters of these technology-based criminal fines claim the cameras “save lives,” the evidence for such conclusions is becoming increasingly suspect. A May 2010 report by the Center for Investigative Action at 11 Alive, an Atlanta-based news station, for example, found that red-light cameras actually can increase rather than decrease accidents. According to this investigation, serious collisions have increased by nearly 50 percent at the 17 red-light camera intersections studied.

Unlike California, Georgia requires that if a red-light camera can be shown not to reduce accidents, it must be removed. However, the lure of easy money from targeting drivers — always an easy target — thus far has prevented California governments from following Georgia’s reasoned and fair approach.

Hopefully, citizens and organizations more concerned with civil liberties than government revenue will rein in the red-light-camera mania.

Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He provides regular commentary to Daily Caller readers.