St. Louis must issue red light camera refunds; are cameras worth the trouble?

Fri, 2015-08-28 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

Over the past 18 months, red light cameras in St. Louis recorded roughly $5.6 million in violations. Now, the city will have to give all of that money back.

Traffic violation cameras were once in the fast lane in many cities, but between court rulings, citizen protest and even questions about their true effectiveness, some cities are slamming on the brakes and taking a fresh look at their programs. Two Missouri cities are taking opposite approaches to the new challenges, illustrating the new trends that are playing out from coast to coast.

Refunds trigger reboot
St. Louis pledges to keep its red light cameras, even though it’s now trying to figure out how to track down everyone who was ticketed and give back their money. It’s sure to be an administrative nightmare, and the city isn’t even sure how big it will be.

Some drivers who were illegally fined undoubtedly moved over the past year and a half and may be tough to track down. It also takes staff to process the refunds. And nearly a third of each traffic infraction went to pay for the cameras.

The state’s highest court struck down St. Louis’s program because it flipped the legal principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” The program automatically fined the owner of the vehicle; it was up to them to prove someone else was driving.

More advanced cameras are now available that can also take the driver’s picture, which should overcome that legal obstacle. St. Louis believes the cameras improve safety and says the fines help pay for police officers. Kansas City says it will bring its cameras back too; unlike St. Louis, it turned them off while the case was making its way through the court system.

St. Peters has had enough
Just 30 miles away, St. Peters is taking the opposite approach. The red light cameras are being removed now.

The city is actually dealing with a pair of legal challenges. It was affected by the same state Supreme Court ruling, though in a different way. It illegally prevented the camera-issued tickets from being used for insurance and other purposes.

Another legal challenge is still outstanding. Residents of the county that includes the city voted to outlaw traffic cameras. The city doesn’t believe they have the authority to tell it what to do. While it’s continuing to fight that suit out of principle, it says it’s had enough with the cameras themselves.

More cities abandon cameras
Nationwide, use of the red light cameras actually peaked four years ago.  Some 700 communities had at least one red light camera in 2011. Just two years later that number dropped by nearly a third.

One reason is safety. Cities install the cameras claiming that they make roads safer. It seems like a reasonable assumption. People who disobey traffic signals put other drivers at risk. Reducing the number of red-light runners should reduce risk.

Real-world results, however, aren’t as clear cut. Even if they reduce the most dangerous T-bone accidents – and the research isn’t even clear that they do – some cities have found that the cameras actually cause more crashes.

At one Los Angeles intersection where red light cameras were installed, rear-end crashes nearly doubled as drivers tried to stop abruptly to avoid being ticketed. In nearby Murrieta, rear-end crashes quadrupled.

Revenue dries up
In California, more cities have abandoned their cameras than are currently using them and ticket revenue may be an even bigger factor in that shift.

Revenue that can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars per camera per year initially can drop to a trickle as drivers get used to them. More judges are also tossing out tickets from cameras or are sharply reducing fines.

And in cities that pay a fixed fee for the equipment, maintenance and monitoring, they are finding the cameras can be a budget suck rather than a revenue boost. Los Angeles and Pasadena both found themselves in that situation.

Safety enhancement or another tax?
The cameras were never supposed to be about revenue. The Governors Highway Safety Association actually recommends that cities use the red light cameras at high-risk intersections. More than 7,770 people died in intersection crashes in 2008, though it's hard to say how many of them were the result of drivers who ran red lights. The association believes some automated enforcement could reduce crashes, although it says cities must avoid seeing them as a revenue source. It argues all money raised should be earmarked for highway safety.

However, there’s no question cameras can raise a lot of money. In 2012, Washington, D.C. netted $13 million from red-light camera fines and $72 million from speed cameras. One camera netted nearly $800,000 all by itself.

As the public outcry grows, some states are stepping in to ban automated enforcement altogether. Ohio now allows cameras only at schools and only when a police officer is present. Across the country, 13 states prohibit speed cameras; 10 prohibit red light cameras.


Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

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