As I drove down DeSoto late for a birthday gathering, my mind began to wander. I was not particularly familiar with the route I was taking as I noticed the lighting up ahead was particularly dim; some streetlights had burned out. Upon approaching the doubled busway-Victory intersection, the light turned yellow and I began to slow down. As I came to a halt, my mind snapped back into driving mode and realized the car was sitting on top of indiscernible traffic lines. Not knowing if I was on the wait here or keep clear part I slowly inched up to get a better view as I was blinded by a flash of light. Damn. The camera caught me.
I never thought it would happen to me; a brain full of thoughts and a poorly lit, unfamiliar intersection combined to create an unfortunately expensive situation. I could have reversed to avoid the 2nd shot, but a car was rapidly approaching and I had no choice but to pass through the intersection and stop on the crosswalk to clear myself out of the busway. As I passed, the 2nd flash blazed the windshield, and my $426 fate was sealed and delivered to my doorstep several weeks later.
And so it goes, California happens to have some of the most stringent red light camera laws in the country. If I had been in Texas per say, the fine would have been a mere $75 capped fee with no points on my license since the law in that state (as many others) requires a witness to obtain a criminal conviction on a traffic offense. Somehow, our great state has different opinions on traffic laws and feels the need to charge more than 4 times than the typical Texan fee. Why? It seems odd to me that the law allows for such subjectivity in pricing offenses, especially for first time offenders.
Besides the outrageous fees, many are questioning the safety effectiveness of these cameras. Instead of running red lights, many drivers are experiencing more brake-slamming and rear-ending out of fear of being caught on camera. According to the Kerrville Daily Times, two different studies in Canada and Virginia showed a 58% increase in accidents at intersections that had the cameras installed mainly due to rear-end collisions. Couldn’t we avoid red light accidents and side collisions by increasing the transition times between green lights or lengthening the yellow time? Possibly, but it would seem to ruin the financial motivations of the city and profiting companies who make millions of extra dollars from these camera installments.
The sheer effectiveness of these machines has been called into question as well. Uninformed motorists may not know that many of the yellow light times are actually shorter than permissible by law based on the speed limit, but can sure catch a lot of “violations”. Other motorists receive violations for their plates which did not match up to their cars, resulting from unclear camera pictures which had to be translated, in these cases, incorrectly.
Besides the unpleasant red light camera tickets, there are many other types of camera violations one can incur such as for speeding, bus lane violations, toll-booths, railway crossings, congestion charges, double line violations, occupancy lane violations, turn cameras, and parking cameras. Not all cameras are activated in a point-and-click fashion, other cameras allow for mass surveillance of motorists and the public.
Proponents of these traffic cameras can argue in the name of safety that these machines have done good and saved many lives. They can even possibly show you some studies and numbers to back up their claims. What they do not take into consideration are the other types of accidents on the rise as well as alternatives to the traffic punishment system. The Texas Transportation Institute found that crashes decrease with an increase in yellow light interval times and a reduction in speed limit. In the tested area, accidents dropped 35% – 40% compared to the traffic control devices which had a decrease of 6.4%. Yet, it seems that surveillance is the preferred tactic of many major cities.
The psychological impact of how our system runs on a model of punishment astounds me. In spite of a good driving record, everyone will violate a traffic law in some fashion. The simple fact is that humans are fallible. The system seems to neglect this fact, or simply profit off it. Creating a system that compensates for our mistakes and helps prevent collisions would be much more beneficial than the “break it, you buy” mentality. The fear of punishment is ultimately not effective. Yes, drivers can be conditioned to fear breaking the law, so much in fact that it inadvertently causes more accidents, just a different kind. Even lessening fees or a warning would be some sort of reward for a long standing good driving record, but alas, a traffic camera lacks the humanity to give someone such a break.
It is presented that the public supports these camera measures, but I cannot ever remember talking to someone that did, in fact, support them. In many other states, motorists argue the traffic cameras are at odds with the very traffic laws themselves and file class action suits while others hire expensive traffic lawyers to by chance work the system to relieve them of the fee. In a non-legal context, others are spraying their licenses with a camera block spray or simply resorting to vandalizing cameras. I cannot say that I support camera vandalization, but it does not seem to me that motorists appreciate these devices as much as we are told we do.
Thus, the ultimate question is why are they here? Why is California so severe in its camera violations? Why are there no warnings or reduced fees for good drivers? Do we even need a point system for red light violations? I do not have the answer, but as I mailed my trial by declaration and asked for leniency for my excellent driving record, my student income, and consideration for the confusing and poorly lit intersection, I received no explanation, but a rejection of my rebuttal. Hence, I guess the official answer is “No Comment”, but I am leaning towards monetary motivations.