Smile! You're on red-light camera

| 8/12/2005

As red light cameras become a hot-button issue both domestically and abroad, one city in Florida is using the technology as a warning system, rather than a revenue source.

The Orlando Police Department announced this week that it will install red light cameras at intersections throughout the city to catch light runners in the act, despite a Florida law that prevents the cameras’ photos or video being the sole evidence for a traffic ticket, the Orlando Sentinel reported

Violators won’t receive a ticket – they’ll just get a warning letting them know they were caught, as encouragement not to do it again.

So far, the camera is being used as part of a pilot program, and will be moved daily to prevent drivers from knowing its location.

“You can either have a two-ton dump truck invade your privacy, or a camera,” Russ Colthorpe, a representative for the camera manufacturer, told WFTV-TV. “Which would you prefer?”

Meanwhile, in other parts of the country, municipalities are implementing speed and red-light cameras without the restrictions of a no-ticket law. In Washington, DC, the Metropolitan Police Department has installed nine new red-light cameras and three speed enforcement cameras. The new cameras bring the total surveillance cameras in the city to 48.

However, not everyone is sold on the security, effectiveness and validity of traffic-monitoring cameras.

On Tuesday, Aug. 9, a judge in Sydney, Australia, threw out a speeding case after the Australia Roads and Traffic Authority admitted they could not prove that pictures taken by an enforcement camera in the case had not been altered, the Australian Daily Telegraph reported.

According to media reports, the rejection of the case centered on the security of a mathematical algorithm that encrypted every picture taken by the cameras. The RTA was unable to find an expert who could prove the encryption could not be tampered with.

The ruling could set a precedent for many others who have received tickets in connection with the speed cameras, which have been in operation for more than 15 years and have netted more than $104 million in fines last year, according to the Melbourne Sun Herald.

On the same day, the RTA also admitted that cameras in the Sydney Harbour Tunnel – which were installed to monitor toll evaders – had been turned off for three years. No tickets were given via the cameras during the time they were off, the Daily Telegraph reported.

Also this week, the Herald Sun uncovered a 50-page manual from the RTA that details other major flaws in the camera system. The paper would not reveal some of the bigger gaps due to safety concerns, but did point out other smaller problems, such as camera distortion from metal signs, fences, wall and roadside postal boxes.

Back in the United States, at least two states are looking into whether images from red light cameras are enough evidence to issue traffic tickets.

In Minneapolis, a city where 16 red light cameras were installed at 12 intersections as a pilot program, only about 40 percent of drivers caught by the cameras were actually issued tickets.

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, about 11,500 drivers were photographed between July 7 – a month after the cameras were installed and the first day tickets began being issued – and Aug. 6. But there were technical problems with the cameras such as blocked views from tree branches and larger vehicles.

The cameras also erroneously photographed drivers who were making legal right turns on red. Of the 11,500 drivers caught on camera, only about 4,500 drivers were issued tickets.

Meanwhile, in Missouri, state Attorney General Jay Nixon is questioning whether the photographs provide enough proof to hand out tickets to motorists.

“I think it’s pretty clear these pictures can’t be the sole or only evidence to cite drivers for violating state traffic laws,” Nixon told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I have deep concern whether taking someone’s picture rolling through a stop light is adequate evidence in and of itself to uphold a state traffic law.”

Several towns in Missouri have already installed the cameras, and more are expected in the near future. Officials in the towns say the cameras would help enforce local ordinances, and would be out of the jurisdiction of statewide laws, according to the Post-Dispatch.

– By Aaron Ladage, staff writer