The city of Memphis has a large (and growing) red-light camera program. Every year, we faced a budget crisis. And every year there was a temptation to expand our traffic camera program.
In our past council meeting of the fiscal year, we decided to amend our speeding camera program from 15 cameras to 150. It was a heated discussion of city finances and future deficits, not so much about public safety.
In the last five years, Memphis' traffic cameras have raised $10.8 million. However, most of that money goes to American Traffic Solutions, ATS, the Arizona company that installs the cameras and administers the program. Of the $10.8 million, ATS received $6.2 million. That means that more than 57 percent of the money from Tennessee residents goes to a private out-of-state firm.
They are really in charge of these programs. They are, in effect, policing our streets.
Of course, since so much money from our cameras goes to an out-of-state vendor, their representatives were at virtually all our council meetings, regardless of whether there was discussion of anything related to cameras.
Through bipartisan legislation for which I am a co-sponsor (SB 1128; HB 1372), the Tennessee General Assembly will get a chance in the current term to curtail the use of these cameras.
I believe the cameras fly in the face of the American tradition of "innocent until proven guilty." The red-light camera issues a citation and there is very little people can do to defend themselves against an improperly issued citation.
In Memphis, you would have to travel to our criminal complex to fight the ticket, wait for several hours in line, and try to recall the circumstances surrounding a picture that was taken of your car several weeks earlier, when you may or may not have even been the driver of the vehicle.
The cameras distract from real public safety challenges. In Tennessee's big cities, the most important problem with respect to public safety is what's happening in our neighborhoods, not at red-light intersections.
Some motorists are racing through neighborhood streets, looking for a shortcut to their destination. To do something about the most serious public safety problem plaguing our neighborhoods, we need more speed humps, speed bumps, and other simple, cheap traffic-calming devices.
Lastly, based on the evidence, it is not clear that the cameras contribute positively to public safety.
True, two studies produced by a major manufacturer of traffic cameras argued that they did. One study, of a community in Florida, suggested that red-light cameras had reduced crashes there by as much as 72 percent. The authors of that study also published a poll purporting to show that 85 percent of respondents supported the installation of red-light cameras.
If you believe the company that makes traffic cameras, in other words, then you believe the cameras eliminate the vast majority of traffic accidents — and that almost everyone loves them.
In fact, other, more neutral studies show different results. According to a report commissioned by the federal Department of Transportation, the cameras do not change "angle accidents." Further, the study finds large increases in rear-end crashes and many other types of crashes that occur at intersections. The study concludes that red-light cameras create (not reduce) public safety problems.
The red-light camera program is not a program of and for cities or communities. The red-light camera program is a program for the profit of private vendors that deploy the cameras and process the citation.
Plenty of individuals from both parties, from all over the country, have grave reservations about approaching public safety in this way.
At the federal level, legislation to ban red-light cameras has been proposed by members of both parties and from all areas.
For years, the ACLU on the left and the Tea Party on the right have opposed red-light cameras. And what's more surprising is that both groups oppose them for largely the same reasons.
This issue is not about Democrats versus Republicans or urban versus rural areas. It's about restoring credibility in government, fairness for motorists, and effectiveness to our public safety programs.