Automated Traffic Enforcement – Safety or Revenue?

As automated traffic enforcement spreads throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, there are growing concerns that the red-light cameras, speed cameras and other automated devices have the potential to be abused by revenue-hungry states and cities.

AAA Mid-Atlantic President and CEO Berni Koch, writing in an editorial in the organization’s magazine, says the arrival of automated-enforcement cameras has “multiplied exponentially the opportunity to abuse the public trust in an effort to bolster government budgets.” The auto club’s bi-monthly magazine is sent to the club’s 3.7 million members from New Jersey to Virginia.

“We absolutely agree that it is critically important that there are adequate and visible police patrols to enforce laws and remind drivers of their obligations to be safe and courteous on the roads,” Koch said. “Since our founding, AAA and its members have advocated for the proper enforcement of traffic safety laws in an effort to ensure mobility, reduce accidents and save lives.”

But the club’s president also noted: “When necessary, AAA Mid-Atlantic has opposed traffic enforcement practices focused on raising revenue rather than increasing safety.” Koch cites a recent example in one small town in New Jersey where a town issued over 12,000 red light camera tickets worth $1 million at an intersection where the yellow light was “short timed.”

D.C.’s budget shortfall

He also cited an example by a large city government, Washington, D.C., where Mayor Vincent C. Gray, to close a budget shortfall, proposed adding $30 million more in automated enforcement revenue. “The emphasis here was clearly not about safety so we objected,” Koch wrote.

Locally, AAA Mid-Atlantic has raised alarms about what it sees as traffic enforcement tickets being used as revenue enhancers rather than for safety measures in Washington, D.C. proper. In fact, the District collected a staggering $60  million in automated traffic enforcement revenue during Fiscal Year 2011, according to recently updated data from the District of Columbia’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OCFC).

This was despite the fact the city actually issued fewer speed camera and red light camera ticket than it did in FY 2010. AAA Mid-Atlantic obtained those figures after filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in May.

Glendarden, Md.

Area drivers say they are increasingly frustrated by the fact some municipalities and local governments appear to be putting profits ahead of safety of children and the accuracy, credibility and the integrity of the automated enforcement system. And they point to Glendarden, Maryland as an example of this.

AAA Mid-Atlantic has called Glendarden officials out for the abuse of the 2009 legislation authorizing the use of speed cameras in school zones and work zones statewide.  The law permits jurisdictions to place such systems within a ½ mile radius of any” accredited” schools, whether private, parochial or public, “for one of more grades K through 12.”

Non-existent school

Along with the motoring public, AAA Mid-Atlantic is chiefly concerned at least one municipality in Prince George’s County, Maryland is routinely issuing tickets to drivers for speeding in a school zone, as the law would require. However, the auto club ascertained there was no school in the school zone.

Yet, according to news reports, Glenarden collected thousands of dollars in traffic enforcement revenue that was generated on a road that didn’t have a school on it, but did have a traffic enforcement camera. “The Glenarden speed cameras have led to nearly $750,000 worth of tickets since May of 2010,” reports WJLA-TV.

AAA Mid-Atlantic has also challenged automated speed enforcement cameras in College Park and Chevy Chase Village, in addition to a controversial speed enforcement operation on a one-mile stretch of I-295 that runs through the jurisdiction of Hopewell, Virginia.

Critics, including AAA Mid-Atlantic and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG), warn: “But when private firms and municipalities consider revenues first, and safety second, the public interest is threatened.”

“AAA will continue to work…to keep motorists safe and partner with police to encourage all roadway users to obey laws.  But on those occasions when we find blatant abuses of authority, we will be there as an advocate for our members,” Koch concluded.


About the Author

Truman Lewis
A former reporter and bureau chief, Truman Lewis has covered presidential campaigns, state politics and stories ranging from organized crime to environmental and consumer protection.