Sunday, June 26, 2011

American Jurisprudence - innocent until proven guilty, except for red lights

I read an interesting article (from MSNBC, nonetheless!) on the debate over red light cameras across the US. Not surprisingly, this is yet another area in which I am strongly opinionated. In the interest of full disclosure, I have not been ticketed by a red light camera (I’m pretty much the best driver I know!), but I am married to someone who has been ticketed by a red light camera. However, I would like to point out that I have been against red light cameras before we received the ticket, and my concerns with red light cameras actually aren’t influenced too much by us having had to pay the ticket (although that shakedown was pretty ridiculous, which I’ll cover later).

First off, what is a red light camera? Well, for those of you who don’t know, red light cameras take a picture (and corresponding video) of your car running a red light and mail the ticket to your house. Well, I guess the cameras don’t actually mail the picture, but after the picture is taken, a ticket is mailed to your house. Of course, after the pictures are taken, (supposedly,) a real person reviews the camera footage to make sure that an infraction has actually occurred before the ticket is mailed.

As for my shakedown saga (which happened two or three years ago), with the ticket that we received, two pictures were included, showing the car before and during the act of running the red light. (Before anyone gets carried away thinking that we just tool around blowing through red lights for fun, I’d like to point out that my wife turned right on red and failed to come to a complete stop – I was with her, and she deserved the ticket, but at no point in time was anyone in danger.) Also included with the paperwork was a friendly reminder that we had to pay the fine by a date that was one week after we received the notice in the mail (really, 9 days; we received it on a Wednesday and it was due the next Friday), and if we didn’t pay it by then, we would be subject to additional fines and/or penalties, up to and including a bench warrant put out for my wife’s arrest (the ticket was issued to her because her car is registered in her name) because while the ticket itself was not a criminal matter, not paying it apparently is.

Of course, if we would like to contest the ticket, we certainly could do so. However, the notice was careful to state that simply providing evidence that you were not the driver of the vehicle at the time of the offense (remember, the camera took a picture of the car, not the driver) is not enough to keep you from having to pay the ticket – you have to prove who was driving the vehicle and therefore should be ticketed for the infraction. So, let's say you’re on national TV performing for Jerry Lewis’s telethon, and one of your kids (“It wasn’t me! Honest!”) borrows your car and runs a red light. Surely the fact that you can easily prove you were somewhere else at the time of the infraction (where is that telethon filmed at anyway?) is enough to get you out of the ticket, right? Wrong. Unless one of your kids fesses up (not just to you, but to the police!), you still have to pay the ticket yourself, because it’s your car. But don’t worry! If a police officer had actually caught you running a red light, you’d be assessed 2 points against your MO driver’s license – 1/6 of the way to the year’s suspension you get for accumulating 12 points in 12 months. Since you were fortunate enough to have the camera ticket your car, *no* points will be assessed!

Wait – isn’t running a red light, running a red light, whether a cop catches you or the camera does? Apparently not all traffic violations are created equal, even if they are the same traffic violation. You see, before contracting to have these red light cameras installed, municipalities here in the state of Missouri were concerned with the legality of assessing points against a driver's license without having proof that that driver was the one who actually ran the red light - so, we just give the car owner a fine, give him 9 days in which to pay it, and everything is cool, right?

Not with me.

As it turns out, I have a hard time accepting the "we saw your car running the red light, so therefore you must have been the one who did it, pay us money" argument.  If someone borrows my car and runs down a bunch of old ladies and drives off, the cops wouldn't be doing their job if they didn't start their investigation with me.  But when I give them irrefutable proof that I was otherwise occupied (also known as an "alibi"), I don't have to prove who did it.  I may be able to point them in the right direction by telling them who borrowed my car, but they're the ones who have to do the heavy lifting.

I do have to say that my opposition to red light cameras could be eliminated if they could somehow take a picture of the face of the driver while it was doing the rest of its business.  I know, I know, then you'd get people wearing ski masks while driving just in case they happen to run a red light, but there will always be those who will do whatever they can to skirt the rules.  At the very least, though, I think you should know who is committing the moving violation before punishing someone for it.

Of course, you'll have some who claim that the red light cameras have contributed to safer intersections, and that's all that matters.  They may, in fact, make intersections safer, although if you read the article I linked at the beginning, you would see that such claims may not be based on sound data practices.  But, you know what else would contribute to safer driving circumstances?  Max speed limits of 15 mph.  Everywhere.  Probably not a lot of fatal crashes then, huh?  But I digress; if safety was the one true goal above all others, then why would cities be shortening their yellow light times before installing red light cameras?  Haven't extended yellow light times been proven to reduce intersection crashes?  Yes, but extended yellow light times have also been proven to reduce the number of red light camera tickets issued.....


  1. Nice write up. I would like to make you aware of, both our website as well as our Facebook Group and Page. We are dedicated to ending Photo enforcement of both Speed and Red Light Cams in the State of Missouri.

    Matt Hay

  2. Good points, I got a ticket doing the same thing your wife did last summer. The thing is is that that intersection has never had traffic or accident problems, its just that a lot of people have to turn right there. But there is no sign that says no right turn on red, so I question the entire legality of the thing, but I paid it off because it's way more convenient, which is what they are betting on.

  3. The other thing is, a lot of cities have actually been losing money for the high costs of installing and running these cameras. The money earned from tickets, or people starting to follow the law isn't helping them. Their whole plan is backfiring because its a money making scam.

  4. Simpsons did it!