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.
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.
[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.
The 10 Most Dangerous Cities
Why N.J. Drivers Should Be Seeing Red Over Red-Light Cameras
If you're looking for a quiet, safe neighborhood to raise your kids, you may want to steer clear of these cities. Based on 2011 FBI data, these are the 10 U.S. cities with populations of 100,000 or more and with the highest rates of violent crime per 1,000 residents.
Violent crimes per 1,000: 14.1
2011 murders: 58
Median income: $45,606
Unemployment rate: 20.2%
Stockton's violent crime rate has worsened from 13.8 crimes per 1,000 people in 2010. Though Stockton has long had high crime rates, the 58 murders recorded last year were an all-time record for the city. This month, to curb the increasing crime rates in the city, police decided to prioritize violent crime and to no longer respond to property crimes in the city unless certain criminal conditions were met.
Violent crimes per 1,000: 14.2
2011 murders: 196
Median income: $38,346
Unemployment rate: 10.5%
Baltimore managed to decrease its violent crime rate slightly from 14.6 per 1,000 in 2010 to 14.2 last year. This coincides with a 12 percent decrease in murders. However, Baltimore still has the sixth-highest homicide rate of any U.S. city with a population above 100,000. Baltimore’s murder rate has been dropping steadily, but with 341 forcible rape cases in 2011 and the 11th-highest aggravated assault rate in the country, many residents are victims. In 2010, Baltimore made plans to layoff 193 police due to budget cuts.
Violent crimes per 1,000: 14.3
2011 murders: 88
Median income: $41,631
Compared to most American cities, Atlanta has extremely high incidences of both violent and property crimes. The city’s 8.27 aggravated assaults per 1,000 people is one of the 10 highest rates among the country’s largest cities, as is the city’s 70.84 property crimes per 1,000 people. Atlanta also has one of the nation’s highest rates of motor vehicle theft, with a total of 5,371 incidents in the city last year.
Violent crimes per 1,000: 14.8
2011 murders: 54
Median income: $30,212
Unemployment rate: 10.9%
New on the list this year is Birmingham, which ranks among the top five cities in the U.S. for forcible rape and property crime rates. The city also has among the highest rates of burglary and larceny-theft. Like many other high-crime cities, Birmingham has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, at 25.1 percent. Despite the rampant crime, officials announced last year that they planned to lay off 148 employees of the sheriff’s department in an effort to reduce the budget by $12.3 million.
Violent crimes per 1,000: 14.9
2011 murders: 37
Median income: $44,415
Unemployment rate: 7.2%
Though Little Rock’s 2011 violent crime rate is down from 2010 -- when there were 15.2 violent crimes for every 1,000 people -- in many ways, the city’s crime rate has not truly improved. Although in 2010 there were only 25 murders in the city, in 2011 there were 37. Additionally, incidents of forcible rape increased from 149 to 161, while the number of property crime incidents increased by 708, or almost 5 percent. According to the Little Rock Police Department, the total number of violent, property and arson crimes has seen a net increase since 2001, although with slight declines in more recent years.
Violent crimes per 1,000: 15.8
2011 murders: 117
Median income: $37,045
Unemployment rate: 11.1%
In 2011, Memphis defied the national trend of declining crime rates in major U.S. cities. The rate of violent crimes per 1,000 people increased from 15.4 to 15.8. This was the product of increases in murders, which rose from 89 to 117 cases, and aggravated assault incidents, which rose by 100 cases. A rising unemployment rate, which grew 1.2 percent to 11.1 percent in 2011, likely has not helped to reduce criminal behavior. With a current budget deficit of $45 million, Memphis Mayor Wharton says he may need to consider “taking boots off the street,” by laying off members of the police force in the near future.
Violent crimes per 1,000: 16.8
2011 murders: 104
Median income: $49,190
Unemployment rate: 15.6%
Oakland historically has been among the most crime-ridden cities in California, with a violent crime rate this year of 16.8 per 1,000 people. There were 14 more murders in 2011 than in 2010, causing Oakland to maintain the ninth-highest murder rate in the country two years in a row. Oakland is the number one city for both robbery and motor vehicle theft rates in the country. Oakland city councilmember Desley Brooks, who wants to allocate $11 million in revenue to the police force, acknowledges the increased violent crime, saying, “we cannot ignore that we have had an increase in violent crime, and so we cannot continue to do the same thing the same way and expect that it’s going to be a different result.”
Violent crimes per 1,000: 18.6
2011 murders: 113
Median income: $32,688
Unemployment rate: 11.7%
Although the total number of murders in the city has decreased by 31 since 2010, crime in St. Louis did not improve overall last year. Violent crime rates in St. Louis have risen dramatically, from 17.5 to 18.6 cases per 1,000 people. And the city’s murder rate is still the fourth-highest in the nation, its robbery rate is the fifth-highest and its aggravated assault rate is the third-highest. Despite these troubling facts, the St. Louis Police Department recently faced potentially drastic budget cuts, which may require the elimination of 100 street-patrolling officer positions through attrition.
Violent crimes per 1,000: 21.4
2011 murders: 344
Median income: $25,787
Unemployment rate: 19.9%
Long regarded as one of the poorest cities in the U.S., with a 32.3 percent poverty rate and nearly 20 percent unemployment in 2010, Detroit has the second-highest violent crime rate in the country. Homicide increased by 11 percent in 2011, while robbery and aggravated assault are fourth- and second-highest in the country, respectively. Nonviolent crime is also an issue, with burglary, motor vehicle theft and arson rates in the top 10 rankings in the country. In response to an 18 percent decrease in the Detroit police budget, which will result in the elimination of 380 positions through attrition and early retirement, the city has begun taking steps to decrease police funding by introducing “Virtual Precincts.” The plan, which closes police stations between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m, requires citizens to report non-emergency crime to a call center, and frees up more patrol officers to respond to 911 emergency calls.
Violent crimes per 1,000: 23.4
2011 murders: 52
Median income: $22,672
Unemployment rate: 18.9%
According to the FBI, no city with more than 100,000 residents had a higher violent crime rate than Flint. In 2011, there were 2,392 incidents of violent crime in the city, which has a population just above 100,000. That same year, there were just 1,246 violent crimes in all 10 of the safest cities in America — which have 13 times as many residents as Flint among them. Flint has the second-highest murder rate and the highest rates of aggravated assault, burglary and arson in the nation. According to Flint Mayor Dayne Walling: “There are too many guns on the street and it’s easy for individuals with evil motives to take another human being’s life.” Though violent crime has long been a problem in Flint, in 2010, the city laid off 20 of its 140 police officers, a decision that diminished both police street presence and response times to crime.
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.