Red Lights, Camera, Inaction: Evaluating failing transportation policy

While whirring technological progress drives the US economy, the technological progress in our streets is a little more stop-and-go. In April, Tampa, Florida will cement this fact with its red light camera (RLC) program. The local policy solution du jour of the 2000s, RLCs are a traffic program designed to decrease car accidents, create a steady source of revenue, and lighten the traffic-monitoring duties of law enforcement officials. However, only five years after implementing RLCs, Tampa and its peer cities already regret counting their chickens before they became roadkill. Retiring the RLC program will be the ultimate recognition that the once-touted solution to traffic violations and budgetary qualms has failed on both counts. The program has, instead, shed light on how municipal governments can miscalculate technological efficiency benefits to the detriment of themselves and their citizens.

In 2011, Tampa partnered with American Traffic Solutions (ATS) to install and operate the city’s RLCs, mounting them on traffic lights above thoroughfares to catch red-light runners. In addition to an undisclosed installation fee, Tampa agreed to pay ATS 53 percent of every ticket and a monthly $3,750 fee per camera — costs considered well worth the anticipated benefits of increased fine collection.

For the first time in the city’s history, the perceived ultra-efficient RLCs would catch all red light runners, regardless of whether law enforcement officers were present. The first year of the program seemed to confirm this efficiency hypothesis as total RLC fines amounted to $7 million, with the city of Tampa earning $2 million in additional revenue. Under the theory that the RLCs would change drivers’ behavior, the city expected to see a sharp decrease in traffic accidents, fatalities, injuries, and property damage. Such hopes seemed plausible; in 2012, about 56 percent of Florida cities with RLC programs reported a decrease in car accidents.

Yet, four years later, the program was hardly the inevitable success predicted in 2011. In 2014, it earned a total of $500,000, meaning the city gained less than $250,000 in revenue. The city’s 2015 budget anticipated $0 in revenue from RLC tickets.

Perhaps more damning than the budgetary concerns was the decrease in motor vehicle safety since the RLC installation. Florida’s 2015 annual traffic report compared data from intersections before the cameras were installed to data recorded after the RLC installation. In nearly all measured categories — rear-end crashes, non-incapacitating injuries, incapacitating injuries, fatalities, and crashes involving non-motorists — the number of incidents increased after installation. Only the number of angle crashes — accidents where one vehicle hit the other at approximately a 90-degree angle — decreased by only one crash. Overall, the report showed a 15 percent increase in total accidents in Tampa from the time the city installed the RLCs, a less than satisfactory result for a program whose stated purpose was to promote greater vehicle safety.

Aiding the RLC’s fall from grace, lawyers have filed numerous class-action and independent lawsuits against Floridian local governments, including Tampa, as well as ATS. Since the installation of RLC programs, ATS has issued citations through a multi-step process: An employee reviews camera footage and, if a vehicle enters an intersection after the red light, she issues a citation. ATS then sends notice of the citation to the corresponding local police department, where the appropriate police officer signs the citation as if she had reviewed the footage herself. Following that, the driver receives the official citation notice. According to a decision by the Broward County Court of Appeals, the structure violates Florida law, as cities cannot “delegate to a private third-party vendor the ability to issue uniform traffic citations.” This ruling has led to an explosion of lawsuits claiming the citations are invalid.

The Broward decision now requires law enforcement officers to watch the footage and issue the citations. While this structure supposedly solves the accountability problem, it also counteracts the efficiency claims local officials used to justify RLCs in the first place. Time spent watching video footage may be less than time spent waiting at intersections for would-be violators, but Florida has nearly reverted to a pre-RLC traffic violation enforcement structure.

Unfortunately, Tampa isn’t alone in its struggle with RLC disappointments. In 2014, Washington, DC anticipated $70 million in revenue from its RLC program but only collected $26 million. Chicago faced severe corruption allegations regarding incorrectly issued citations. Cleveland eliminated RLCs after voters overwhelmingly supported a ballot measure to end the program. Across the country, the story is the same: RLCs fail to deliver on the benefits they continually promise.

Ironically, Tampa may have discovered a better solution: longer yellow lights. Increasing the duration of a yellow light from 0.5 seconds to 1.5 seconds decreases red light running by 50 percent, leading Tampa to increase the duration of its yellow lights at key intersections. That policy change, while good for driver safety, is also largely credited with the declining revenue from RLCs, as fewer drivers are running red lights and fewer citations are being issued. In fact, it’s estimated that a one-second increase decreased citations by 79 percent.

The perceived efficiency improvements, safety enhancements, and budgetary benefits of RLCs were nothing more than smoke and rear-view mirrors. As Tampa prepares to either renegotiate or end its contract with ATS, the city, like others grappling with the alarming inefficiency of RLCs, will need to weigh the program’s failures and mounting legal challenges with any possible benefits the cameras might provide. Hopefully, with innovative traffic enforcement programs and a larger focus on quality implementation, Tampa and other RLC cities will ultimately see the light.

Art by Rebecca Andrews