Kevin dismisses the arguments of those who oppose red light cameras.

If you get a ticket days after a violation happens, you’ve already forgotten the circumstances! That might wash for some other kinds of violations, but running a red light? Offhand I can’t think of a single extenuating circumstance.

But there are all sorts of extenuating circumstances that might apply.

*Perhaps you were stuck in the intersection while the light was green and you don’t drive out until the light turned red? That happens to me all the time in the traffic-congested area where I live.

*Perhaps the amber signal is very short? Even if you’re not “routinely pushing your luck,” it’s entirely likely that you will occasionally run a red light in situations of heavy traffic, long intersections, slick roads, and all manner of instances where it would be imprudent to slam on one’s breaks the instant the light turned amber.

I agree that the privacy concerns are minimal if it is just a still-frame camera pointed at a specific location and triggered by the light changing color. But the problem here is that human judgment is taken out of the equation and citizens are forced to prove their innocence; the presumption of guilt is there with the photograph.

Furthermore, because this is such a fantastically easy revenue stream, the authorities have every incentive to set the cameras to routinely fine anyone who “runs” a red light even if only by a fraction of a second. Live police officers would be much less likely to do that, as they have to deal with the violator face-to-face. Indeed, I would much prefer to have highway patrol officers on the beat looking for drivers engaged in potentially deadly behavior like intentionally running red lights, passing erratically, driving drunk, and driving too slowly in the passing lane rather than sitting behind berms with radar guns trying to raise revenue. Anything that makes ordinary citizens more contemptuous of the law is a bad thing.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I don’t have the study at hand, but in Washinton D.C., and in several communities in California, there have been several out-of-court settlements because of traffic light cameras. The top three things I recall:

    • The technician who determines your guilt is an employee of the corporation that operates the cameras, not a policeman. He does not testify; instead, a policeman “familiar” with the operation of the system takes the stand. He can say the system should work; he cannot explain exactly how you were determined to have violated the parameters. He also may not be able to testify as to the actual parameters used in your case, only the standard parameters. You are deprived of your right to confront your accuser. (N.B., This may have been changed due to legal actions subsequent to the 2000 report I read.)
    • Traffic cameras are historically not placed where red-light running is most common. They are placed, instead, where red-light running by expensive vehicles is more common. Revenue, not safety, is the primary concern.
    • Finally, the report stated that the best way to decrease red-light running was to increase the duration of the warning light — to give drivers more time to react. If I recall correctly, the traffic engineering values with regard to maxima and minima were actually removed from planning and operations guides in some communities after the cameras were installed. And, subsequent to traffic camera installation, at least in the D.C. location in the report, the timing was tuned to maximize the number of tickets generated. In other words, the warning period was shortened, increasing driver work-load and decreasing safety, in order to maximize revenue.

    I won’t go into the privacy concerns. Suffice it to say, I believe these cameras to be less than the perfect solution to the problem.

  2. frank says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t James Joyner just admit to being a cold-blooded traffic scofflaw? According to his own words, he runs red lights “all the time.” He even italicized it!

    He is very lucky these many many many incidents have not yet been caught on film. But, rest assured, I have forwarded this post containing proud admissions of guilt to the proper authorities.