Hit the Brakes: The Controversy of Red Light Cameras

Would you prefer to be caught doing something wrong red-handed, or would you rather be caught on tape? That’s just one aspect of the controversy that surrounds red light cameras. It’s never a good idea to break the law, but many drivers feel there’s a difference between a police officer pulling you over versus receiving a citation with photographic evidence in the mail days after your violation.

While photo enforcement certainly comes with its share of controversy, few people would likely suspect that the first red light camera was developed by a former Monte Carlo racing champion.

Caught on Film: History and Development

Maurice Gatsonides was a Dutch race car driver, engineer and inventor who founded a company called Gatso. According to the company website, Gatso developed the first red light camera (RLC), which caught images of violations by stretching tubes across the road in 1965. The tubes contained sensors, which could trigger the camera if an infraction was about to occur.

This red light camera was developed decades before it was introduced in the United States. The National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running reports that New York City was the first major metropolitan area to receive red light cameras, which were put into commission in 1993.

Today, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reports that 24 states and the District of Columbia use red light cameras in a total of 552 communities across the U.S.

According to the IIHS, modern red light cameras monitor traffic just before the crosswalk or stop line of an intersection. The cameras monitor all activity while the light is red, using sensors that monitor traffic flow. Many cameras will provide up to a half-second of extra time for motorists who are traveling as the light turns red.

Depending on the system in place, the camera will take photos (or video) that show the vehicle entering the intersection after the light has turned red. These cameras also record the date and time of the infraction, as well as the license plate number and vehicle speed. The data is then reviewed by police officers or other government officials to confirm evidence of an infraction. If there’s clear evidence that the car ran a red light, a ticket is typically mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle caught on film.

Pros and Cons of Photographic Evidence

Whether you love red light cameras or hate them, chances are you’ll find people on the same side of the fence as you. Recently, the Kansas City Star reported that red light cameras have made drivers more cautious, but at the same time, the incidence of rear-end collisions has increased at intersections that use traffic enforcement cameras.

The concerns don’t just revolve around safety either, as some defendants of photo cop infractions believe that red light cameras are unconstitutional.

The Tampa Bay Times reported that Thomas Filippone, a former New Jersey insurance lawyer, successfully argued that the law in Florida was unconstitutional because red light cameras do not prove the identity of the driver.

In Filippone’s case, Pasco County Judge Anne Wansboro dismissed the charge, saying that Florida’s red light camera law “shifts the burden of proof to the Defendant and therefore does not afford due process, and is unconstitutional to the extent due process is not provided.” The newspaper reports that city officials have taken notice, but “no one is taking down cameras yet.”

Red light cameras have also been scrutinized as nothing more than a revenue generator. The Washington Times reported that they generate an average of $61 million per year in Chicago, while Louisiana has seen red light camera revenue increase 419 percent since 2008.

The IIHS maintains that the main purpose is not to make money. Rather, photo enforcement is used to encourage people to obey the law. The organization notes on its website that signs often warn drivers when red light cameras are in use, and that if the cameras are successful, ticket revenue should ideally decline over time.

Do you think RLCs are a necessary nuisance?