Four years ago, Washington, D.C., began photographing the license plates of drivers who run red lights. The program has it ticketed 377,000 violators and generated $22 million in revenue, while red-light running in the city has dropped by 59 percent, says Governing magazine.
Some complain that holding the vehicle owner liable, regardless of who was driving,
violates due-process rights. But judges have dismissed those concerns, and the cameras are proliferating. Courts have been reluctant to interfere elsewhere.
The cameras now are at work in more than 80 cities in 20 states. Advocates say automated cameras allow justice to be blind by nabbing violators without any human bias from traffic cops. Still, proposals to install red-light cameras continue to generate protest. Legislation to allow them statewide was shot down this year after contentious debates in Hawaii, Texas and
Virginia. Laws in Alaska, Nebraska, New Jersey, Utah and Wisconsin prohibit their use altogether.
The American Civil Liberties Union doesn’t object to the concept, but it is concerned about targeting the vehicle owner without proof of who is behind the wheel. Oregon’s cameras capture both the license plate and a close-up of the driver’s face. Studies in California have shown that the registered owner of the car turns out to be the driver 90 percent of the time.
Some governments all but admit that the cameras are a “thinly disguised ploy to raise revenue,” Governing says. In Providence, with a $19 million budget gap for 2003-04, Mayor David Cicilline proposed installing cameras at 25 intersections and fining red-light violators $75. Cicilline didn’t wrap his revenue-raising strategy in public safety terms. To save money, some cities install fake red-light cameras to trick drivers into thinking they are under surveillance.