Why N.J. Drivers Should Be Seeing Red Over Red-Light Cameras

red light camera
red light camera

"Smile! You're on Candid Camera!"

This old tag line, first aired on American radio (if you can believe it) in 1947, has taken on a new meaning in America, as states across the land have begun installing red-light cameras at their traffic intersections. Ostensibly an invention aimed at preventing accidents, these cameras have morphed into revenue generators for states and municipalities. Through the magic of technology -- voila! -- instant traffic tickets, and no paychecks for policemen required!

Not everyone's pleased with this development. Take New Jersey, for example.

Historically, objections to the use of traffic cameras have hinged on constitutional grounds, with detractors arguing that using a camera to issue a ticket violates a motorist's due process rights. (So far, 15 states have banned red-light cameras on this basis.) But in New Jersey last month, 21 out of 25 towns that have been using the cameras were told to suspend the practice for another reason entirely: They don't work.

Oops!

Late last month, the New Jersey Transportation Department warned that dozens of its red-light cameras may not be properly calibrated -- or rather, the traffic lights to which they're attached may not be showing the yellow light long enough for drivers to get through the intersection without getting snapped. Either way you look at it, the result is the same: New Jersey may have been issuing improper traffic tickets for months.

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[Pause for outrage.]

Regardless of this risk, New Jersey says it's only suspending enforcement while recalibrating the machines. As soon as it decides everything is kosher, the tickets will begin flowing again. Why?

You'll be shocked to learn that the answer is: money. Numerous reports challenge cameras' effectiveness at improving traffic safety. (Actually, in 2005, The Washington Post confirmed that accident rates at camera-equipped intersections actually go up by double-digit percentages, as nervous drivers see a yellow light and slam on the brakes, more worried about a head-on collision with a ticket than being rear-ended by the drivers behind them.) One thing no one disputes, though, is that red-light cameras bring in the cash. In buckets.

%Gallery-158032%In Rochester, N.Y., cameras have yielded some $1.8 million in fines since installation last July 1. Granted, two-thirds of this went to the cameras' owner-operator, Redflex Traffic Systems. City officials still gloat over revenues flowing in at "triple" their initial estimates. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, the past 13 months have seen cameras in the town of Cherry Hill issue some 17,500 citations, for about $1 million in revenue.

Hey, with this much revenue at stake, who cares if the things work right?

Fool contributor Rich Smith rarely runs red lights... when anyone is watching. He owns no shares of any company named above.