When I first learned of our city’s implementation of red-light cameras, I was vehemently opposed. Not because I saw them as a revenue generator, as has been the main accusation against them, but rather, I saw them as taking away discretion from police officers. For example, if an officer pulls you over for a traffic light violation, he or she might find it more advantageous to issue a warning rather than a citation. I know in my patrol career, I weighed many factors before deciding which course of action would ultimately change a driver’s behavior — which is the ultimate goal of law enforcement at its very core.
After the cameras were installed, I asked our Traffic Division supervisor, Sgt. Scott Mantzke, to educate me on the cameras and the ticketing process. Operating under full disclosure, I offered my trepidation. Sgt. Mantzke proceeded to show me how he and his staff watch each video and view still photos of each violation to determine if a ticket should be issued. He explained that questionable infractions are not ticketed, thereby blowing my discretion complaint out of the water. I then accompanied him to several citizen meetings where he gave a presentation on the cameras.
I learned quickly about the many concerns to quell. For example, some felt as though rear-end collisions would go up as a result of stopping quickly at a red-light camera intersection. They haven’t. A comparative analysis shows that rear-end collisions have not increased. Another complaint was that the yellow lights do not allow for adequate stopping time. They do. Each stoplight is set to show yellow for a minimum of four seconds in a 30-mph zone. If you are traveling the speed limit, physics proves that you will be able to stop in 2.4 seconds. If you are speeding, it takes longer. It was interesting how each presentation to the community started out with the audience thrusting their hands up in the air to voice their concern. The hands slowly went down as each myth was dispelled.
One gentleman identified himself as an attorney and offered to the audience that he received a red-light violation in the mail and could recall the precise moment he traveled through the intersection. He was adamant that he cleared the yellow light and planned to fight the ticket. Because a ticketed driver can go to a website where they are able to view their violation, he did so confidently. The scenario that played out in his mind’s eye was very different than the footage that showed him blatantly running the red light. He hung his head and paid the ticket.
I found the same reaction from those who chose to fight their ticket in front of a hearing officer. I sat in during one of the sessions and watched as each driver pleaded not guilty only to be shown the video. Upon watching one video where a female obviously drove through a red light, the hearing officer looked puzzled as to why she was pleading not guilty and asked if she had any explanation. The female lowered her mouth into the microphone and stated, “I was going to buy beer” and then quickly fled the courtroom. The audience roared with laughter. Her comedic performance was a hit but she was still cited.
Part of the problem is that we have been conditioned to speed up when the light turns yellow. This means that we have to re-program the way we drive. Red-light cameras don’t eliminate crashes as evidenced by the terrible accidents we have captured on video due to someone running a red light. They do, however, reduce the risk. Some might still believe it’s a revenue generator. To those people I simply state, don’t run the red light.