Red Light and Speed Cameras: Public Safety or Private Gain?

No one likes getting traffic tickets. But a new research that we released today will make you dislike them even more.

No one likes getting traffic tickets. But a new research that we released today will make you dislike them even more.

The report, Caution: Red Light Cameras Ahead; The Risks of Privatizing Traffic Law Enforcement and How to Protect the Public, outlines problems with the growing trend among cities to outsource traffic enforcement to private red-light and speed camera vendors. We find that approximately half of states, including Illinois, have enabled the use of automated traffic law enforcement.

We also found that too many cities wrongly sign away power to ensure the safety of citizens on the roads when they privatize traffic law enforcement. Nationally, automated traffic ticketing tends to be governed by contracts that focus more on profits than safety. That shouldn’t happen

Across the country, municipalities contract with private companies to provide cameras and issue citations to traffic violators. In Illinois, there are at least 84 jurisdictions that industry documents list as contracting for automated traffic law enforcement, third only to California and Florida.

The City of Chicago holds the largest automated traffic law enforcement system contract in the country with Redflex Traffic Systems, for a total of 380 red-light cameras. And lawmakers in Springfield are considering a bill right now that would expand automated traffic enforcement in Chicago by authorizing the use of automated speed enforcement systems, in addition to the red-light cameras.

The good news is that Illinois and the City of Chicago have done a decent job of implementing protections for the public in these contracts. But with this new bill to expand the scope of automated traffic enforcement in Chicago, we want to make sure that they don’t fall into the same traps that we’ve seen in other places across the country.

For example, from 2006-2011 Redflex Traffic Systems employed over 100 lobbyists working to secure these contracts in 18 different states, including Illinois. In some parts of the country, this lobbying has led to contracts that are driven by profits and include ticket quotas, which undermine the local officials’ authority and puts revenue collection ahead of public safety.

It is hard to imagine meter readers lobbying for an increase in the number of parking meters in town, or traffic cops arguing for more stop signs, solely on the basis that doing so would enable them to write more tickets. Yet, that is precisely the dynamic that exists with the privatized traffic enforcement industry.

The industry’s business model depends on more governments adopting their technology and enforcing traffic laws in ways that boost the industry’s bottom line. In other words, when there is profit to be made from issuing traffic tickets, there becomes a lobby for creating more violations.

In order to ensure that the public interest is protected, Illinois PIRG recommends that all deals between local governments and vendors should:

  • Put public safety first in decisions regarding enforcement of traffic laws – this includes evaluating privatized law enforcement camera systems against alternative options without regard to potential revenues.
  • Ensure that contract language is free from potential conflicts of interest.
  • Avoid direct or indirect incentives for vendors that are based on the volume of tickets or fines.
  • Retain public control over traffic policy and engineering decisions, including cancelling contracts if the public is dissatisfied.
  • Ensure that the process of contracting with vendors is completely open, with ample opportunity for public participation and each ticket listing where to find online data about automated ticketing for each intersection.

We are lucky that Illinois hasn’t yet seen the controversy and lawsuits over red-light cameras found in states like Missouri and Texas. But looking at the growth of this industry around the country, we want to learn from problems elsewhere to prevent them in Illinois.

The report can be accessed by clicking here.


Celeste Meiffren-Swango

State Director, Environment Oregon

As director of Environment Oregon, Celeste develops and runs campaigns to win real results for Oregon's environment. She has worked on issues ranging from preventing plastic pollution, stopping global warming, defending clean water, and protecting our beautiful places. Celeste's organizing has helped to reduce kids' exposure to lead in drinking water at childcare facilities in Oregon, encourage transportation electrification, ban single-use plastic grocery bags, defend our bedrock environmental laws and more. She is also the author of the children's book, Myrtle the Turtle, empowering kids to prevent plastic pollution. Celeste lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and two daughters, where they frequently enjoy the bounty of Oregon's natural beauty.

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