Big Brother Backlash: Citizens Unite to Bring Down Ticket-Generating Red-Light Cameras

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Are videocameras at traffic lights meant to make roads safer? Or just serve as an easy way for states and municipalities to dish out tickets and raise revenues? Considering the serious money generated by cameras—as much as $480 per ticket, with a single camera responsible for more than $4 million in fines in one year—drivers have reason to believe they serve mainly as cash cows.

Random citizens have banded together to successfully battle wireless provider fees and bank debit card charges. Next on what seems to be an always-growing agenda of consumer outrage could be a widespread war on cameras that are affixed to red lights—and that drive drivers nuts by capturing images of road violations and doling out pricey traffic tickets.

California drivers have the most to gripe about. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, a driver snapped while violating a red light receives a ticket for a whopping $480. One notorious camera in Oakland grosses $3 million annually in tickets and produced 9,273 tickets worth $4.2 million in 2010.

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Tickets generated via roadside cameras in most states, cities, and counties cost far less than California. Around $100 is typical. But that doesn’t mean drivers outside California like them any better.

Edmunds recently rounded up some of the grassroots efforts to get rid of red-light cameras entirely, or at least make the process seem fairer. Dozens of anti-camera Facebook pages and websites such as have sprung up around the country, as have advice forums and services for hire aimed at helping drivers fight red-light tickets in court.

Some drivers have also gone to some extreme—and extremely goofy—means to avoid traffic tickets. A few years back, one guy got in the habit of wearing a monkey mask behind the wheel. Why? Because, at least for a while, he was able to argue that he couldn’t be nabbed for speeding if the camera couldn’t prove who was driving. All the camera showed was a mask featuring a monkey, or sometimes, a giraffe.

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On a much more serious note, the National Motorists Association (NMA) offers its top 10 objections to red-light cameras, including the fact that drivers aren’t notified about the violation in a timely and adequate manner. When you’re pulled over by a police officer right after an incident occurs, the driver understands why he or she was pulled over—because the event just happened.

Contrast that with an incident highlighted in the Edmunds story, in which a town councilman in New Jersey received a ticket in the mail a full six weeks after he was captured on camera rolling through a red light. If the point is to improve safety, why the month-and-a-half lag time? By then, many drivers will have no recollection of the incident, and finding out about a ticket is more likely to result in outrage, not more cautious driving:

“It’s a rip-off,” he says … “If the ticket was given to you in a week or less, you would know to slow down.”

Even more of a rip-off: Incidents in which dozens of drivers have been ticketed because they went through red lights during funeral processions, with on-duty police holding up traffic to allow them to proceed.

Another of NMA’s objections is that there must be better alternatives to red-light cameras. The organization says that many intersections are improperly designed and don’t have simple, easily understood signage. Correcting these mistakes would improve safety more than the presence of cameras:

Cities can choose to make intersections safer with sound traffic engineering or make money with ticket cameras. Unfortunately, many pick money over safety.

Speaking of safety, the NMA claims that red-light cameras don’t help. Naturally, that’s a controversial claim. A 2011 report from the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University, for instance, concluded that the presence of red-light cameras helped reduce crashes.

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Nonetheless, many drivers and elected officials want the Big Brother-like presence of red-light cameras to be gone. Nearly all red-light cameras are operated on the behalf of states and municipalities by private companies, and cities such as Los Angeles, Albuquerque, and Houston have elected to not re-up contracts or even pull out of them before they expire. Voters in several smaller cities have also passed ballot initiatives to take down traffic cameras.

For the most part, though, the red-light cameras that have been put up are staying up because states and towns can’t turn down easy money—especially not if they can make the argument that cameras increase safety while simultaneously increasing revenues. For now, at least, the fact that red-light cameras makes some drivers (and voters) angry is a tradeoff they can live with.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.