David Shepardson/ Detroit News Washington Bureau
Washington — A new report questions the growing use of red-light cameras in the United States, asking whether local governments are using them to raise revenue rather than boost auto safety.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group said in a report released Thursday as many as 700 cities and other jurisdictions have cameras to monitor drivers who run red lights and speed.
"Privatized traffic law enforcement should be used solely as a tool for enhancing traffic safety — not as a cash cow for municipalities or private firms," said the report.
The report also questioned some cameras that result in tickets for a "rolling stop to turn right.
More than 60 million Americans live in 693 communities where red-light cameras are used. Of those, 92 have speed-limit cameras. The cameras take photos of license plates, which result in citations being mailed to drivers.
The report says 28 states and the District of Columbia are using the cameras. Michigan doesn't use red-light cameras.
Then-Attorney General Mike Cox said in a 2007 opinion that the cameras aren't legal under state law, scuttling a plan by Southgate to use them.
Michigan state law does allow for tickets by camera for drivers who don't stop at railroad crossings.
The report questioned contracts that give private companies a split of ticket revenue — giving companies an incentive to generate more tickets. Other contracts penalize cities that don't approve enough tickets.
Walnut, Calif., has a contract that allows for a financial penalty if the city waives more than 10 percent of violations issued.
The report notes that many vendors have long-term contracts that can require hefty penalty fees for terminating contacts. When voters in Houston approved ending red-light cameras, the vendor said the city would owe $25 million if it withdrew before 2014.
The National Coalition for Safer Roads criticized the PIRG report, saying it "relies on a handful of biased organizations to present misleading information and half-truths on red light safety cameras and industry organizations," said David Kelly, president and executive director of the group and a former acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Instead of engaging in a meaningful debate about the role of camera safety systems, U.S. PIRG focused solely on a small number of older contracts."
The cameras have been in use since 1992, when Jackson, Miss., became the first city to adopt them.
In June, the nation's mayors backed red-light and speed cameras to reduce traffic crashes, despite criticism and court challenges from some motorists.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors at their annual meeting supported the use of the cameras, saying it "strongly supports the use of red light and speed safety cameras to help reduce red light running and speed-related injuries and fatalities."
In February, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that 676 people were killed and 113,000 were injured in crashes that involved red-light running in 2009. Two-thirds of the victims in these crashes were pedestrians, bicyclists or occupants of vehicles hit by red-light runners.
The study also found red-light safety cameras helped save more than 150 lives in 14 of the biggest U.S. cities from 2004 to 2008. Had the cameras been operating in all 99 large U.S. cities — with populations above 200,000 — more than an estimated 800 lives could have been saved.
The Federal Highway Administration also has reported that communities with red-light safety cameras see a 20 to 87 percent reduction in red-light running violations within 18 months of installation.
But many motorists don't like the cameras and argue it's simply a way for cities to raise more revenue.