Red Light Cameras, Highway Robbery

You're driving on your way home from work and mulling over some of the day's events in your mind as you approach the green light at an intersection.  About 50 feet away, the light turns to yellow, and you know you have plenty of time to get by it before it becomes red.  Halfway through the thoroughfare, just as the light passes over the top of your windshield, the crimson beam makes its appearance.  You've easily reached the other side of the street before the opposing traffic gets the green go-ahead signal.  You continue along, confident that you cleared the byway lawfully.  About a week later, you find a traffic summons in your mailbox ordering you to pay $150 fine for passing a red light.  According to the edict, you were caught by a camera that has your picture and plate number branding you as a red light-runner.  Stunned, you stare at the legal notice and try to remember when this so-called violation occurred.  That may not be easy because the set of facts described above is a common driving pattern that most people engage in without a second thought.

The yellow light is a warning that the red light will follow in a matter of seconds; therefore, if the driver is near enough to the cross-street to pass it within seconds, he/she is most likely to continue driving, rather than jam on the brakes and perhaps get rear-ended by another car.  Nevertheless, you've been summoned by the Big Brother of that city, and you can either mail in the money or plead not guilty and try to fight it in court.  That could mean taking a day off work, sitting around in a crowded courtroom, and pleading your case against an intractable video that will coldly indict you for something you barely remember doing.  If you had been pulled over by a police officer, you could have debated the reasonableness of being ticketed under the circumstances.  Furthermore, if you lost the debate, you would at least have recalled the incident.  Inasmuch as taking a day off work may cost you more than the ticket price, you're likely to simply grimace and pay it.

It seems to me that being convicted by a machine is antithetical to everything we learn about fair play and justice.  You can't argue with a contraption if the authority paying for the robotic tyrant is determined to agree with the judgment made by the device.  We're told it saves money because it requires fewer cops to enforce traffic laws, allowing them to stay vigilant for more serious crimes.  Using that logic, we should have numerous cameras in high-crime areas to assure the public that felony prevention is more important than minor traffic infractions.  The reason that won't happen is because a city can bring in a lot more revenue by picking off the errant motorist, who is most likely able to pay the fine, than by arresting itinerant dirtbags for burglary or purse-snatching, since they are most likely to be unemployed and, hence, unable to contribute to the local treasury.  Simply put, the hardworking, law-abiding taxpayer is a lucrative target for municipalities that are always looking for more cash to feed their insatiable appetite for other people's money.

Thankfully, people are fighting back against this legalized robbery of the citizenry.  Lawsuits have been filed in several cities not only claiming, but proving that some cameras have shorter yellow-light durations than state law requirements in order to catch drivers running red lights and boost ticket revenue.  The implications of those findings are frightening when you realize that a city can increase revenue enormously simply by tweaking the time frame by a split-second, thereby making violators out of lawful citizens and ripping them off with impunity.  In some areas of the country people are becoming violent, vandalizing the pole-mounted cameras by literally shooting them off their lofty perches.  One notorious resistance operative has been wearing Halloween masks to keep the authorities from proving who was operating his vehicle.  Some of these tactics, assisted by other forms of public outrage, are working.  Two large cities, Los Angeles and Houston, have recently banned the red light surveillance systems.

Yet New York City, where I worked as a cop for 20 years, has increased the number of metallic peeping Toms.  In the past, when the city wanted people to pony up more dough, the word came down from the mayor's office to the police commissioner's office to the division office to the precinct captain that there was dissatisfaction with the lack of "traffic enforcement" in the city.  Those were code words for "tell your subordinates to get those pens working or expect a lot more supervision!"  Now, it's all done with the click of a camera.

Bob Weir is a retired detective sergeant in the New York Police Department.