Tickets and incentives

| Comments (3) | Misc
For obvious reasons, California law forbids cities from sharing revenue from red light cameras with the vendors who operate the cameras. Apparently, cities have found a way to get around this restriction:
California law explicitly bans local jurisdictions from rewarding red light camera companies with payments based on the number of citations issued or as a percentage of fines generated. At least fifty cities have attempted to skirt this requirement with a clever arrangement known as cost neutrality. These contract provisions allow a city to pay the contractor based on the number of citations issued up to a certain monthly amount. After this cap is reached, the city keeps all of the revenue generated. The provisions are designed to ensure that cities can only profit from photo ticketing and will never pay to operate the program.

"If the total compensation paid to Redflex pursuant to this agreement exceeds that portion of fines received by customer for citations issued during the same twelve (12) month period, then Redflex agrees to absorb, eliminate, or reimburse customer for the excess expense thereby covering the cost for system operation so that the customer achieves cost neutrality in accordance with the representation that the system(s) shall pay for themselves," Section 6.5 of San Mateo's contract states.

This pretty clearly gives the vendor an incentive to issue more tickets, and the judge in the case linked above concluded that it violated the law and struck down the program. With that said, I'm not aware of any evidence that red light camera companies do anything to issue bogus tickets. There likely are some ways to issue tickets when people weren't really violating the red light (e.g., by issuing bogus timestamps; I don't think the photos include the light in the frame), but that isn't to say that the companies which operate the cameras do anything like that.


There isn't any conclusive evidence that traffic cameras make traffic any safer either. The most common abuse is reducing the duration of yellow lights below the minimum required by state law. Union City, CA, was caught doing this.

Needless to say, the practice is illegal, reckless, and endangers lives. It was implemented by cities (at least 6 if them, including Chattanooga, Dallas, Nashville, Lubbock, Springfield, MO and Union City), not red light camera operators like Redflex.

The most common way Redflex operates is to pressure cities to systematically pursue formerly ignored offenses like making a rolling stop prior to making a right turn on a red light. This is specially tempting for cities like Emeryville that have a small local population but have major transiting traffic.

In San Diego, the Lockheed subsidiary which managed the cameras was notorious for issuing tickets apparently with the hope that people would pay without fighting them - several coworkers got tickets which were dropped immediately upon appeal because the photos clearly showed their vehicle stopped behind the limit line.

I like the idea of red-light cameras but this is a real confidence in infrastructure issue. Every detail of the system needs to be public and audited (San Diego was another city which reduced the yellow interval to well below the legal minimum) and it really should be a requirement that the city own and operate them rather than hiding behind a vendor (as with voting machines, they shouldn't be able to halt an inquiry by shouting "trade secrets") when questions arise.

I'm not impressed with all of the claims of safety improvements (I've read a few presentations with serious handwaving on the subject of rear-end collisions) but I've noticed that a major factor in congestion and safety risks (at least from my perspective as a cyclist) are people who routinely run red lights, block the box, etc. knowing that there are rarely consequences for doing so. Even a $20 ticket would discourage people from doing that on a regular basis.

It seems like the problems could be substantially addressed by requiring that cameras capture video
(±15s) to avoid any question about what happened (including light timing) and capping the amount of the tickets to avoid cities looking at their police departments as major revenue sources.

Maryland recently adopted a few measures for traffic cameras which make a great deal of sense, the most important being that ticket revenue over 10% of a city's budget goes to the state budget instead, deliberately aimed at a few cities where over a third of the budget was generated by speed & red light cameras. I like this approach quite a bit (although it wouldn't work here in DC) - I'd go as far as saying that anything over the operating costs should go into the state budget because it'd remove most of the incentive for abuse but would allow use by anyone who's actually making an honest attempt to discourage bad driving.

It's somewhat tangential to ekr's post (which didn't address whether we should be using red-light cameras in the first place), but in response to part of Chris's comment:

I'm somewhat ambivalent to red-light cameras. I deplore the abuses (shortening of the yellow cycle, which clearly doesn't serve to improve safety), and I've read some reports, as Chris mentions, about the increase in rear-end collisions, as people stop more abruptly than they might have.

On the other hand, I favour any mechanism that can take an officer's testimony out of the equation, and give more objective evidence for traffic court.

Because traffic tickets are used as revenue sources, and police officers are evaluated by how many tickets they write. Traffic court turns the onus probandi on its head, requiring you to prove your innocence. Any officer who wants to write a ticket can stop you and claim you ran a red light or a stop sign, made a turn without signalling, or did any of a number of other easy-to-claim violations... and you have no defence.

Sure, you can go to court and say, "I didn't." The officer will be there saying, "He did." And the officer wins, every time. I can't see how this can hold up, constitutionally, but (1) these are misdemeanors, so no one's going to make a federal case out of it, and (2) traffic court would collapse entirely if corroborating evidence were required for all traffic tickets. And apart from all that, the state (and, thus, the judge) has an financial interest in seeing you convicted.

I don't know what we can do about the general problem of how traffic court is skewed, but cameras and other mechanisms that take "the officer said" out seem useful.

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