Inhuman Revenue Service

Science, technology, and life.
March 28 2009 8:29 AM

Inhuman Revenue Service

It's a tough time to be a mayor or governor. Budgets are tight, tax hikes are unpopular, and you can't easily hire cops and parking enforcement officers to hand out more tickets. Fortunately, there's a way to increase citations and revenue without adding to your payroll: traffic cameras.

William Bulkeley documents the trend in the Wall Street Journal :

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

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Suppliers estimate that there are now slightly over 3,000 red-light and speed cameras in operation in the U.S., up from about 2,500 a year ago. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that at the end of last year, 345 U.S. jurisdictions were using red-light cameras, up from 243 in 2007 and 155 in 2006. One traffic-cam seller, Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions Inc., recently reported it had installed its 1,000th camera, with 500 more under contract in 140 cities and towns. Rival Redflex Holdings Ltd. says it had 1,494 cameras in operation in 21 states at the end of 2008, and expects to top 1,700 by the end of this year.

Cities say they're putting up these cameras to protect the public. But the Journal points out that this effect isn't clear:

Some research indicates they may increase rear-end collisions as drivers slam on their brakes when they see posted camera notices. A 2005 Federal Highway Administration study of six cities' red-light cameras concluded there was a "modest" economic benefit because a reduction in side crashes due to less red-light running offset the higher costs of more rear-end crashes.

If the safety rationale isn't compelling, what's behind the camera trend? Look at the first case Bulkeley cites:

The village of Schaumburg, Ill., installed a camera at Woodfield Mall last November to film cars that were running red lights, then used the footage to issue citations. Results were astonishing. The town issued $1 million in fines in just three months.

And what did the camera do for safety? It "mainly snared those who didn't come to a full stop before turning right on red," Bulkeley reports. Not exactly a vital public service, except for the money.

Elsewhere, the financial rationale is explicit. "Last June, Arizona added a provision for speed cams on highways to its budget bill, with an anticipated $90 million in fines expected to help balance the budget," Bulkeley notes. And get this:

[A] study in last month's Journal of Law and Economics concluded that, as many motorists have long suspected, "governments use traffic tickets as a means of generating revenue." The authors ... studied 14 years of traffic-ticket data from 96 counties in North Carolina. They found that when local-government revenue declines, police issue more tickets in the following year.

Oh, and one more thing: The cameras "are operated by for-profit companies that typically make around $5,000 per camera each month." It's a surveillance-industrial complex.

I can't claim to be impartial on this subject. In the last few years, I've paid around $400 for tickets issued by traffic cameras—way more than I've paid for tickets issued by human officers. Most of that total came from three tickets issued by the same camera for the same infraction in a two-week period. If a human officer had ticketed me the first time, my wife and I would have realized we'd broken the law, wised up, and driven that stretch of road more carefully. Instead, the traffic camera quietly collected photos, and the government didn't send us any tickets—which is what finally alerted us to the violations—until we'd repeated the mistake three times.

I'm not proud of breaking the law. But I'm not stupid, either. By using inconspicuous surveillance and delaying notification, the government traded public safety for revenue.

Big Brother is watching you. And when he needs cash, he watches that much more closely.