Smile, that photo just cost you a hundred bucks. Citations for red light violations are on the rise as surveillance cameras take over for police officers at intersections across the country. Many city officials and members of law enforcement support the use of technology, but critics say it is just a moneymaking opportunity that does not increase safety or reduce accident rates. Photo enforcement typically consists of a camera connected to the traffic signal and to sensors in the road at the crosswalk or stop line. When a car crosses the sensors after the light has turned red, photographs are taken of the vehicle’s license plate, driver’s face, and the vehicle’s progression through the intersection while the light is red. The 2002 report from California’s state auditor said the City of San Diego’s intersection surveillance program reduced red-light related collisions by 16 percent. This system is also safer for police officers, who often must cross a red light to stop the offending driver. This success has been reproduced in other areas, but the cause is often debated. While some attribute lower accident rates to the camera’s deterrent effect, others credit additional changes, such as altering the length of yellow lights. Opponents of photo enforcement have accused some cities of shortening the duration of yellow lights while maintaining the standard length of the red lights. This suggests that more red-light violations will occur due to drivers’ expectations of a longer yellow light, but no more accidents will result because all directions will be stopped for a red light. Supporters say an electronic system is superior to traditional police patrolling because cameras do not discriminate and can operate around the clock. Deliberate running of red lights account for an estimated 260,000 accidents each year in the United States, according to a study by the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida. The National Motorists Association opposes the use of photographic devices because the system lacks a human witness for court testimony and is more punitive than proactive. Drivers many not be aware of their traffic infringement for weeks and while a fine may be a deterrent, drivers do not learn about the real dangers of disregarding traffic laws. Furthermore, citations are mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle, even if this is not the driver who committed the violation. The NMA charges that city governments make the process inconvenient so drivers are more likely to pay the fine than to contest the charge in court. Vendors that manufacture the surveillance equipment for a city receive a percentage of all collected fines. If a city’s intent is to reduce violations, thus increasing safety, opponents question why a private corporation would invest in a system whose success would make it no longer profitable. Critics are also concerned that traffic flow aids, such as light synchronization and the elimination of unneeded controls, may be at odds with a city’s need and desire to generate revenue from red light cameras. Photo enforcement has been present in Europe for years and is used extensively in England. Electronic surveillance captures drivers running red lights at intersections, speeding, and crossing railroad tracks illegally. Speed cameras photograph a vehicle at two points and determine the vehicle’s speed by calculating the time required to travel the distance. Similar to other photo enforcement policies, drivers are mailed a citation with notification of their rate of speed and the posted limit. The Evening Standard, a London publication, reported that citizens overwhelmingly support surveillance cameras and want more on the roadways, despite the fact that nearly two million drivers are caught by the technology and punished for speeding. In addition, the public would prefer that the cameras remain inconspicuous rather than be painted bright yellow. Accidents may be more likely if drivers abruptly brake when a camera is noticed. Tickets can be issued for all these violations without another person ever witnessing the incident. In some jurisdictions, the driver’s face is not even photographed, leaving the registered owner responsible for any citations. This is also the policy in some U.S. cities, making it difficult to accurately place responsibility on a particular individual. Companies that operate vehicles with multiple drivers may have no way to identify the offender, forcing them to absorb the cost of the fine.
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