The Political Issue of Traffic Cameras

Citizen Wealth Financial Justice

traffic-camera-3-photo-292381-s-cd-galleryNew Orleans      No matter whether you care who is the mayor of Chicago or not, and believe me it is a factor in an important and hot contest between incumbent and former chief of staff for both Clinton and Obama, Rahm Emmanuel, and challenger Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia carrying the flag for progressives and many unions, we all have to love the fact that one of the big, big issues in the race is traffic cameras.   Yes, traffic cameras!

If you drive a car in a big city, you know what I’m talking about when a red light flashes as you pass an intersection and within thirty days you get a picture of your truck’s rear end, big as life, with your license plate clearly identified.  It’s not just big cities either.  A couple of years ago I got one somewhere around Sioux City, Iowa passing through on the interstate driving home from Montana.  Most people would not know that Sioux City was a city if it didn’t include that fact in its name.

Let me be clear though.  We are all for traffic safety, but there’s something about these cameras that just screams “gotcha” and feels like a scam.  The issue in Chicago, where Gracia has promised to eliminate all of the cameras and Emanuel has already conceded that he would remove 25 of them, though still leaving almost 150 in place, is the public’s feeling that the cameras are rigged to ensnare drivers.  Certainly placement of the cameras is arbitrary and capricious by definition.

New York City doesn’t tell people where they are located, though in most cities they are pretty obvious once you start looking.  Of course it is difficult to tell the difference between a red-light traffic camera and all of the new Homeland Security cameras, but that’s another issue for another time.  In New Orleans, in most areas,  there are ample warnings and often even signs.  The tickets though start at $105, while New York seems to only be $50.  Houston and Los Angeles have voted to get rid of the cameras, as have other communities because of all of the problems and the limited results.

The biggest issue is that it’s all about the money, not traffic safety.  The Federal Highway Administration in a 2005 study looked at seven cities and found that there was a 25% drop in collisions based on people running lights, but a 15% increase in rear end collisions as people tried to avoid the tickets.  In Philadelphia, a study there argued that it was important to publicize the location so that there are better safety results.

Most drivers become “once burned, twice learned” and avoid at all cost the intersections because we’re not morons.  Even in New York with their hidden cameras, the revenue fell from $71 million in 2011 to $28 million in 2014 according to the New York Times.  Same for New Orleans, though the numbers are different, prompting Mayor Landrieu to add more cameras to try to make up the revenue.

The burden unfortunately is inequitable.  Too many of the light locations are in lower income and working communities where people are hustling to get to work.  Expensive tickets once unpaid escalate quickly with more fines and interest, and even in some cities, New Orleans again is an example, it cost more to appeal by another $50, than to pay, pushing regular drivers into the category of legal scofflaws, creeping around the streets hoping to avoid the Denver boot and even more costs.

Traffic safety is critical, but there has to be a better way, and seeing this issue front-and-center in a big city political contest like Chicago, may force this revenue stream to be dammed, and real solutions to emerge.


Billy Bragg’s “Waiting for the Great Forward”