Eye in the Sky

traffic camera

One of the newest traffic control solutions hitting greater Birmingham is the use of traffic cameras. Usually placed at intersections to track motorists running red lights, traffic cameras have been around for about two decades, but they’re just beginning to show up in Alabama with several municipalities investigating their options or awarding contracts to one of the two main traffic camera companies,  Redflex or American Traffic Systems (ATS). Back in September, for instance, the City of Midfield made headlines after awarding a ATS contact to install and operate the city’s traffic camera system. Also, Birmingham, Irondale and Center Point, to name just a few, have been in the news in recent months expressing interest in traffic cameras.

Our fair state is adopting the controversial technology even as other states and cities across the U.S. have either ended the use of cameras or prevented them from coming in altogether. The problem, according to Gary Biller of the National Motorist Association, is that the companies that provide the service make their profit from the revenue generated by ticketed drivers. This, he says, provides incentives for some of these companies, primarily ATS, to engage in some shady practices.

“While Redflex has been going about its business relatively quietly, ATS has made headlines for their aggressiveness and, at best, questionable business tactics,” Biller says. Here is just a sample of some of ATS activities:

ATS was ordered to pay $10,000 by a Washington Superior Court judge as  a result of a scandal in which an ATS executive was caught representing himself online as a local Mukilteo, Wash., pro-camera resident  while a petition demanding a public referendum on the use of red-light cameras was being circulated.  In addition, in a report published in the Everett Herald newspaper on Aug. 7, 2011 — less then two months before Midfield awarded ATS its contact — then ATS vice-president Bill Kroske attempted to collude with Mukilteo mayor Joe Marine to deny the city’s population the chance to vote on banning the use of intersection and speed cameras.

Also in Washington, a release of internal emails from the Lynnwood, Wash., police department brought to light comments by the police chief on how dependent the city is on the revenue from ATS ticket cameras, as well as a police sergeant’s offer to help ATS with red-light camera marketing and lobbying efforts. Finally, a deputy chief was found to have inquired with ATS about job opportunities at the camera company while beginning negotiations for renewing the city’s camera contract with them.

Also, in a piece reported in the Florida newspaper The Sun Sentinal on Aug. 14, 2011, ATS spent $1.5 million dollars in lobbying efforts in the Sunshine State over a four-year period. The company’s efforts landed them 65 contracts in Florida. Again, this news was published just weeks prior to the finalization of the Midfield contact.

After ATS was voted out by the city of Los Angeles in a July 2011 referendum, the company sued the city of Houston, which had booted the company by more than 350,000 votes in November 2010 , in an aggressive move to avoid losing the nation’s fourth-largest city. After a federal judge ruled the referendum didn’t meet legal requirements, the city’s mayor, Anise Parker, ordered the cameras back on. However, after listening to the complaints by constituents, Parker asked the city council to vote to remove the cameras permanently. But ATS has threatened a protracted legal battle that could cost the city up to $20 million.

However, it’s not just ATS that has used unethical practices. Some U.S. cities have used underhanded practices to generate more revenue, usually by shortening the duration of yellow lights. In March 2008, the National Motorist Association reported that six cities — Chattanooga and Nashville, Tenn.; Dallas and Lubbock, Texas; Springfield, Mo., and Union City, Calif. — were caught in yellow-light timing schemes generating unheard of profits for these municipalities. For example, a report by KDFW-TV in Dallas showed one camera at an intersection produced over 9,400 tickets worth over $700,000 between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, 2007. In Chattanooga, a judge ordered the city to issue $8,800 in refunds to motorists after it was determined an intersection in question had a yellow light sequence of three seconds, compared to as much as four seconds at other, nearby intersections.

Unless officials see the light and ban the use of traffic cameras, the big question is how we protect ourselves. The best advice would be to avoid driving in these cities and to tell your elected officials to keep cameras out of your town. Until then, there is one other method you can try. Jim Oakes, an Alabama NMA activist, sent a can of Photo-blocker license plate spray. According to information on the company’s website (www.photoblocker.com), the spray overexposes a car’s license plate, making its numbers unreadable as it goes through an intersection. We have no idea if it actually works, but for around 30 bucks, it’s worth a try. The label on the can is worth that much alone.

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