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Fed Up Drivers Fight Back Against Traffic Cameras


More and more cities are installing cameras to catch drivers who run red lights. The goal is to save lives. And every study shows they work. But more and more angry drivers protest that the real purpose of the automatic cameras is to generate revenue for city coffers and profits for outside vendors. Last year, voters in nearly a dozen cities rejected red-light cameras. If you've challenged a ticket from a red-light camera, what happened? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Corey Dade is a national correspondent for NPR Digital News. His piece "What's Driving The Backlash Against Traffic Cameras" is posted at npr.org. He's with us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on the program.

COREY DADE, BYLINE: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And again, proponents say this is a no-brainer. These traffic lights are shown to prevent those T-bone accidents that are most dangerous kinds of accidents there are.

DADE: Right. That it's a no-brainer. Why doesn't every community get on board and try this? It certainly is for revenue sake. It's certainly positive for governments because they need to free up as many police officers as possible to go and, obviously, do other duties, more series crimes et cetera. But, at the same time, you have issues involving the accuracy of the cameras that are being used, mechanical failures and then, of course, the challenge involving rear-end crashes that are created by this.

So while they may lessen those serious - those more serious T-bone accidents, there are studies that show that they actually increase those rear-end accidents when drivers know that that red-light camera is there, and they slam on the brakes at the last minute.

CONAN: And then somebody slams into...

DADE: That's right.

CONAN: ...them from behind. Again, almost always less serious accidents than T-bones and fewer rear-end accidents than - created than T-bones prevented. But nevertheless, the issue that seems to rankle people the most is the idea that this is some sort of hidden tax.

DADE: Exactly. When, as we just - as I just said, you have, certainly, a need among local governments to come up with new revenue. But there are financial incentives that are embedded in these contracts with - between vendors, the companies that provide the cameras, and the local governments that actually buy the cameras and install them. There are incentives, for example, certain contracts are written in such a way that companies get a take off of each ticket that is generated off of a traffic camera. So the more tickets, the more revenue, everyone gets a nice fair amount.

CONAN: And some charge that, in fact, that incentive causes those companies to put those cameras on a hair trigger.

DADE: That's right.

CONAN: For example, one solution that a lot of people say that would help this problem is longer yellow lights, caution lights.

DADE: That's right.

CONAN: And, in fact you pointed out in your piece some of these contracts with these outside vendors say if you shorten - you can't shorten those - you can't make those caution lights longer.

DADE: There are some governments that may not know that there is this - they may not realize what they're giving away in this. They're giving away, to some degree, a little bit of control over that duration of the yellow light. A lot of companies don't want that duration to be extended, but then there are motorist associations, drivers et cetera who say - and there are studies out there that prove that if you actually extend the duration of the red lights, it gives cars...

CONAN: The yellow lights.

DADE: Oh, the yellow lights - excuse me. It gives cars a chance to clear the intersection and avoid accidents and avoid running the red lights.

CONAN: And avoid those fines that drive people absolutely crazy.

DADE: That's right.

CONAN: Because what happens is you - the incident happens and you don't pay that much attention to it until all of a sudden something arrives in the mail.

DADE: That's right. And actually, you may not even - you may get one glimpse if you're driving at night. You cross an intersection. There may be this big flash. You may see it in your rearview mirror, especially at night. You may not know what it is. You keep on running. You keep on driving. It turns out that that's often the camera that got triggered when you crossed the intersection.

CONAN: Taking a picture of your license plate.

DADE: That's right.

CONAN: So how do they tell who's driving the car? They just no which car it is by the license plate number.

DADE: They have no clue. Those tickets go to the owners, the registered owner of the driver, which can be a logistical nightmare to begin with, because the owner may not know that they're ticketed. They may not have been driving at that point. Another problem that's often the case, if you're traveling and you're passing through a certain town and you get ticketed, you may not be able to get back to that jurisdiction to contest the ticket. Or you may have moved, and they send the ticket to the registration address that is no longer your updated address, and so you're caught unawares.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. If you've been caught by one these red light cameras and try to challenge your ticket, what happened? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Dan's on the line, Dan calling us from Cincinnati.

DAN: Yes. So...

CONAN: Hi. What happened?

DAN: Well, I was - I actually got a ticket in the mail from somewhere in Cleveland, and I had not been in Cleveland for probably 10 years. It turned out that they caught me going through a red light, only they - it wasn't my car. It wasn't even the right license plate, obviously. And it seemed like it was a fairly automated system, because I received this ticket in the mail, but there was no way to call anybody to contest it. I was simply expected to show up at court. But it was clear from the photograph that it wasn't my license plate and it wasn't even my car.

CONAN: So not merely expected to show up in court, the alternative was to just send a check.

DAN: Right. Exactly. And the only way I actually was able to resolve it was - I called the city of Cleveland, I think it was, and I wasn't even able to talk to anybody. I, you know, I got the bureaucratic response of, you know, you have to show up at court, and then they hang up on you. And the only way I got it resolved was by calling my local police department, who then somehow found a contact, and they called them for me.

CONAN: Well...

DAN: And then it got dismissed.

CONAN: So an arduous process solved to avoid a fine of how much?

DAN: I guess - I think it was like $150, or something like that.

CONAN: So no small sum. Dan, congratulations.


DAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And we should point out, obviously, there are cameras lots of other places, too. There are your speed cameras on highways. If you're going 10 miles an hour over the limit, they will take your picture and send you a ticket, too. But there's a lot fewer of them. I was amazed, in your story, of how many states, -how many cities these red light cameras have been installed in.

DADE: That's right. You have red light cameras in, you know, in probably about 24 different states, thereabouts. Somewhere upwards of 600 some-odd cities have either red cameras and speed cameras, or one of the two, and they are proliferating. Speed cameras are coming behind them.

CONAN: And the road rage - you talked about this response in a dozen places. If you can get it on the ballot, I think it's been proved people will vote against it.

DADE: In my research, I found one city last year, one city out of nine that actually voted down the referendum. So, yeah, when you talk about percentages, that'll definitely get people out to vote.

CONAN: Let's go next to Scott, and Scott's with us from Phoenix.

SCOTT: Hi. I had an experience in Tempe, Arizona with a speed camera. I was driving in the city. I got a ticket for going 46 in a 35, and I decided just not to mess with trying to fight it. So I went online the day that I got the ticket, and I paid it. And then I was driving the next day through the same area and noticed that it's not a 35-mile-per-hour speed limit in that area. It's a 45, and they had the camera apparently set up wrong, programmed to - that it was a 35.

And so I called the court and asked them what to do. I already paid the ticket, which is an admission of guilt, and they told me to write a letter to the judge and explain the situation and wait to hear back from him. So I did that. Two weeks later, I got a form letter in the mail that said my petition had been denied. So I went back to the court in person, and I - to see if there was anything that I could do. And the clerk handed me a packet to appeal that said that the deadline to appeal was 14 days after the ticket date, and I was on the 15th day. So I ended up...


CONAN: I'm sorry to laugh, but...

SCOTT: ...just giving up on it, but it was complete injustice. And I was pretty upset about it.

CONAN: I'm not sure Dante would have included this is one of the circles of hell...


CONAN: ...but maybe one of the circles of purgatory. That's a terrible story, Scott.


CONAN: I'm sorry to hear about that, but I'm glad you're OK. Thanks very much for the phone call.

SCOTT: And, Neal, that's...

Thank you.

DADE: And Neal, that's one of the problems that this causes. There are some complaints out there, some lawsuits filed that says this violates the Constitution insofar as it puts the burden of proof - it shifts it from the government to the individual driver. So you have to prove that you're innocent, because the assumption in the minds of many drivers who are angry is that they are guilty. And when you don't have a police officer there, there's no human that you can sort of appeal with or discuss the infraction and potentially get your case heard right there on the spot.

CONAN: Is there much doubt that - we're hearing about, you know, cases where mistakes were made. But is there much doubt that, in the vast majority of cases, people where guilty?

DADE: There is not much doubt. There are certainly some high profile mistakes been made in places like Washington, D.C., San Francisco. But once you fix those mechanical errors, it'll get you.

CONAN: Yeah. Right. Let's go next to John, John with us from Beaverton in Oregon.


CONAN: Hi, John.

JOHN: I'm a criminal defense lawyer. And in Beaverton, Oregon, they have photo radar, as well photo red light. And you can contest whether or not you were the driver by state law, by just sending in a statement saying that you weren't driving. But Beaverton added a wrinkle to it without even changing an ordinance or a statute, and said that if you were going to contest, that you had to name the person who was really the driver and provide their driver's license number and date of birth. And I was incensed about this. I took on some cases pro bono, and I would appear in court. And every time I would make my argument that this was a violation of the law to require the person to become an unpaid informant or snitch for the government, every time I walked into court, they dismissed the cases.

And after a very long, protracted battle - it was the Oregon State Legislature, believe it or not, getting its dog in the fight - Beaverton finally, finally started to agree to comply with the law. But it was a horrid, horrid fight. I took on a number of cases for free. And, unfortunately, word got out that I was doing this, and then people called me all the time to fight their tickets when I do things like defense of murder and rape and (unintelligible) charges.

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah. For the most part, the margin of profit is limited on these cases. John, there may be a statue erected to you outside the Department of Motor Vehicles, but otherwise, I think you're going to be unrecompensed.


JOHN: I'm going to run, but I probably can't hide.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. And that raises the question, Corey: What happens is there are a lot of people who don't pay their fines for one reason or another. What happens when they don't?

DADE: Well, it gets worse. In many jurisdictions, if you do not pay in 30 days, those fines go up. In many cities, they double. And if you don't pay, they will send collection units after you, collection agencies. Although in places like, say, for example, Los Angeles, Los Angeles recently ended their program in part because the police commission there believed that the courts weren't properly enforcing these fines, weren't effectively collecting the fines. And so they deemed the program unenforceable.

CONAN: Unenforceable...

DADE: Unenforceable.

CONAN: ...but presumably, you have this fine outstanding. Next time you try to register your vehicle...

DADE: That becomes a problem. That's right.

CONAN: So, anyway, Corey Dade, thanks very much for the call - for being with us here today.

DADE: My pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: Corey Dade, a national correspondent for NPR News. You can find his piece at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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