Will Foreman isn’t buying the claims of politicians who say improving traffic safety, not boosting government revenue, is why speed cameras are proliferating on city and suburban streets across America.
Two speed cameras in Forest Heights, Maryland, not far from the U.S. Capitol and operated by OptoTraffic, LLC, ticketed delivery drivers for Foreman’s auto parts shop at least 60 times in 2010. He was initially upset with his drivers, so he decided to examine the ticketing devices.
“You said ‘story,’ but it’s more of a nightmare,” he told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Foreman started with a ticket that claimed his driver had gone through the cameras’ coverage zone at 76 mph. He analyzed the two camera images taken one-third of a second apart on a computer program that calculates time, distance and velocity.
He was able to determine that the truck would have traveled 40 feet had it been moving at 76 mph, not the 14.5 feet shown by the images. Covering 14.5 feet in that interval meant his driver was going well below the 35 mph speed limit for that stretch of road.
His driver was innocent and the speed cameras were wrong, so Foreman took his evidence to Maryland’s courts and lawmakers.
“I was in court 12 times, and then I went to Annapolis two different times to lobby before two committees,” Foreman said.
Judges dismissed some of the tickets when Foreman showed them his calculations, and his lawyer eventually settled the rest with the city. But what Foreman calls the “grand theft” by speed cameras didn’t stop.
Forest Heights, a suburban hamlet of 2,500 residents, had an annual budget of nearly $2 million in 2010, before installing the cameras.
The following year, the town more than doubled its budget to $5.9 million, relying on $2.8 million in expected camera revenues, according to official documents. The police department showed off a new fleet of patrol cars the next year.
“I mean, they were like drunken sailors spending money, like there was no tomorrow, and that money was supposed to be for safety,” Foreman said.
Optotraffic did not respond to requests for comment.
Foreman is far from alone. Each year, speed cameras generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the 138 localities across the country now using them.
Just as a flood of legal and technical problems are tainting red-light camera programs — the former CEO of Redflex Traffic Systems and a Chicago official were sentenced to prison last year in a cash-for-contracts scheme — and revenues drop off, motorists groups say speed cameras are taking their place.
A dozen states currently deploy speed cameras, while 13 have laws prohibiting their use. Others have no laws, leaving the decision whether to use the devices to local officials. Consequently, speed cameras are becoming more widespread, often encouraged by supportive media coverage.
“I think what we’re seeing is there’s been a fairly precipitous decline in the use of red light cameras over the last few years,” said John Bowman, spokesman for the National Motorists Association. “And the camera companies I think are the ones that are really driving this. And they’re looking for other ways to use their technology.”
Critics say speed camera tickets are an inherent conflict of interest for local governments. Politicians insist they’re meant to reduce speed, even as they rely on speed cameras to support their budgets.
“I think it started happening during the great recession, when tax revenues were down,” said John Townsend, spokesman for AAA’s Mid-Atlantic region.
Some politicians are more blatant than others about their enthusiasm for speed cameras.
Then-D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray in 2012 proposed filling part of a $172 million budget gap by increasing “traffic calming” revenue from speed cameras by $70 million. Critics wondered how Gray knew there would be $70 million worth more speeding that year.
New York City generated $41 million in revenue from speed cameras last year, according to the Washington Post Magazine. Chicago realized $40 million the same year, while Philadelphia got $16 million. As for D.C., the Post calculated that revenues from speed cameras plummeted from $88.8 million in 2013 to $30.6 million last year.
“The unseen force in all of this is the vendor, who gets 30 percent, between 30 and 33 percent,” said Townsend. “Why would you give the 30 percent to a vendor who doesn’t care about law enforcement?”
Governors Highway Safety Association spokeswoman Kara Macek said some cities have tarnished the reputation of speed cameras, but warned against throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
“Part of the controversy, I think, is perception, that it’s just a revenue grab. And a lot of places quite honestly haven’t done it the right way,” Macek said. “Communities that want to look at this, the reason that you should put speed cameras in your community is to change behavior, not to make money.”
Cameras should only be placed in “high-risk” sites in neighborhoods, with clear signage, and used as a “supplement” to traditional law enforcement officers, not a replacement.
The insurance industry and road safety advocates insist that speed cameras improve road safety. But, that’s up for debate.
The U.S. has few studies on the effects of speed cameras on speed and accident rates, and many of the ones that do exist are funded by the insurance industry. Automated tickets count as points against insurance in some states, meaning higher rates.
The latest study, released earlier this month by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, claimed cameras in Montgomery County, Maryland, have drastically reduced traffic speeds since their installation in 2007. But a control site in neighboring Fairfax County, Virginia, where there are no speed cameras, revealed significantly slower speeds, too.
“Speeds went down in Montgomery County and in the control site, but they went down much more in Montgomery,” said Russ Rader, senior communications vice president for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
“Speeding is a difficult, ongoing problem, and it’s a factor in the deaths of 10,000 people in the U.S. each year, and we know how to address it,” Rader added.
Speed camera critics dispute IIHS’ claim that the study proves speed camera effectiveness.
The number of accidents “was exactly the same in Fairfax County, Virginia,” said NMA’s Bowman. “You can make the case that the cameras didn’t really do much, the accident rates were falling anyways.”
Nationwide, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found traffic fatalities declined 21 percent between 2005 and 2009, citing safety campaigns against drunk drivers and increased safety belt usage, and improved vehicle safety technology.
Analysts with the Maryland Drivers Alliance examined the IIHS data and concluded that, if anything, the accident rate in Montgomery County was worse than in Fairfax County, although accidents declined in both counties.
A 2013 study by doctors at the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine examined vehicle crashes before the installation of speed cameras along a highway in Arizona and after they were removed.
The AAAM, which describes itself as a group of “engineers, physicians and researchers working together to decrease road traffic injuries across the globe,” found “neither camera placement nor removal had an independent impact” on crashes.
“Our data did not show any statistical increase or decrease in total number of motor vehicle crashes with speed cameras,” the study said.
As for Foreman, there is no question in his mind what speed cameras are all about.
“The issue is theft,” Foreman said. “They’re stealing from the public.”
TOMORROW: Critics say no due process with speed cameras
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