Posted by: Jerry Garrett | November 9, 2011

Photo Enforcement Industry Engages in More Unsavory Tactics

California DMV handbook illustration of what to do when a stopped school bus flashes its red lights. Common sense, or $50K cameras, needed?

A press release came across my desk the other day from some organization claiming 66 percent of Americans wanted to see school buses equipped with photo enforcement cameras to nab flashing red light runners.

I thought, “Gee, I’m an American, and I don’t recall being asked for my opinion on this.” After doing a little bit of digging, I was able to find out that the “survey” of “Americans” was based on a bogus study commissioned by a manufacturer of photo enforcement equipment.

Slow down! D'oh.

A short time later, I received another release saying that an overwhelming number of law enforcement agencies wanted to see speed cameras installed at school zone crossings. Were all law enforcement agencies actually asked? What are the odds that happening? What a massive study that would have been.

So guess who, it turned out, was behind that scientific “survey”? Quel surprise! Round up the usual suspects – the photo enforcement industry.

For the record, I abhor people who ignore the flashing red lights of a stopped school bus, or who roar through school zones – my daughter was hit in a crosswalk by just such a scofflaw. But I believe vigilant citizens can be counted on to report and control the problem. Installing $50,000 cameras on every school bus or crosswalk would be a huge burden on taxpayers – and benefit only the photo enforcement industry.

This isn’t the first time that companies in this industry have been found to have commissioned bogus, self-serving “research” into how popular and/or effective photo enforcement installations are.

Fact is, almost no one likes photo enforcement programs – at least as indicated by the fact every municipality, county or state that has allowed the public to vote on whether to permit such programs – has seen them voted out. The only people, besides the greedy folks behind the photo enforcement industry itself, who want such programs are gullible public officials who think speed and/or red light cameras will bring them revenue. What these politicians usually find out, however, is that revenue generation almost always falls well short of revenue promised.

Red light cameras, like this one in L.A., are now just a bad memory. (AP)

Not even the photo enforcement firms are doing that well: most have declared bankruptcy. It seems they are being kicked out of more and more contracts – with cities small and large, including most recently Houston and Los Angeles. The reasons are many, among them: revenue shortfalls, enforcement problems, voter backlash and vandalism acts.

The photo enforcement industry won’t go away, however. Houston photo enforcement provider, ATS, is threatening to sue the city for breaking its contract; they want $50 million in “damages”. It is estimated that 700 communities in North America still have one kind of photo enforcement program or another in place.

The photo enforcement folks are now drawing up stricter contracts that make it tougher for communities to bail on programs that don’t pan out (L.A., for example, was having to come up with $1 million a year to subsidize the shortfall in their now-disconnected red light camera system). Taxpayers now get the bill if photo enforcement programs are terminated early.

Longer yellows = no red-light running

Some contracts restrict municipalities from lengthening the yellow signal, says a new report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, the federation of state public interest research groups. In Florida, the photo enforcement industry hired nearly 40 lobbyists to defeat a 2011 bill that would have required municipalities to lengthen yellow-light durations to give motorists more time to stop.

Yellow-light duration has long been a flash point in the photo enforcement fight. Lengthening a yellow signal gives drivers more time to react to a signal change, thus reducing the number of red-light violations. Studies (i.e., real studies) have found that lengthening the duration of yellow lights by two seconds completely solves the problem of red-light running. The downside: It doesn’t make photo enforcement operators rich.

“However, some contracts potentially impose financial penalties on the city if traffic engineers extend the length of the yellow light at intersections, which would reduce the number of tickets the systems can issue,” the report says.

Photo enforcement operator humor (radargunblog)

Even worse, the co-author of the report, Phineas Baxandall, says, “The most problematic contracts require cities to share revenue with the camera vendor on a per-ticket basis or through other formulas as a percentage of revenue. In other words, the more tickets a camera system issues, the more profit the vendor collects. It just creates this really broad incentive to fine as many people as you can.”

The photo enforcement industry, the report emphasizes, is a “for-profit” operation that has huge financial incentive to fine as many people as possible; it has no incentive to fix a problem. In fact, they have a vested interest in seeing red-light running and speeding continue (or, for a healthier bottom line, increase); ending the problem would put them out of business.

Watch for more reports here about the unsavory practices of the photo enforcement industry. We’re watching them, just like they are watching us.

Jerry Garrett

November 9, 2011

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