Are cities negotiating away their ability to protect citizens by outsourcing traffic enforcement to private camera system vendors?

A new study found that contracts between the companies responsible for red-light and speed cameras and municipalities can include payment incentives that put profit above traffic safety. Some of the contracts also limit the ability of governments to set and enforce traffic regulations, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) said.

The report, Caution: Red Light Cameras Ahead; The Risks of Privatizing Traffic Law Enforcement and How to Protect the Public, said that red-light violation mitigation techniques such as lengthening the duration of yellow lights potentially could lead to financial penalties in some jurisdictions. The study cited the California cities of Bell Gardens, Citrus Heights, Corona and Hawthorne as examples of contracts where this could occur.

The findings also revealed that some contracts include language that could also penalize municipalities if they don’t approve enough traffic tickets that come from camera systems. For example, the report notes that in Walnut, Calif., the city has a contract with the vendor Redflex that has a possibility of a financial penalty if the city waives more than 10 percent of violations from the cameras.

“Too many cities wrongly sign away power to ensure the safety of citizens on the roads when they privatize traffic law enforcement,” said Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst for tax and budget policy at PIRG and a co-author of the study, in a statement. “Automated traffic ticketing tends to be governed by contracts that focus more on profits than safety. That shouldn’t happen.”

Not surprisingly the National Coalition for Safer Roads (NCSR), a trade association that advocates for the traffic safety technology industry, called the study findings “misleading,” in a press release.

The NCSR argued that PIRG’s report focused on outdated models of contracts and that the organization did a “disservice to the safeguards” that localities have in place to ensure safety for citizens.

According to NCSR, the “fee-for-service” style contracts that PIRG claims “give municipalities a clear picture of the cost of applying the system as part of an overall traffic safety management plan,” in its report, is the now actually the industry standard.

“It is clearly more than a majority and I would say it’s an overwhelming majority,” explained David Kelly, president and executive director of NCSR, in an interview with Government Technology.

“You still have some of the old contract terms about fee-per-ticket and that kind of stuff is still out there and I don’t want to pretend it doesn’t exist, because it does, but it’s not the norm,” he added.

Anne McCartt, senior research vice president for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), said it was good that the study was done so more could be learned about different community practices.

While she hadn’t looked at the PIRG findings, McCartt emphasized that decisions regarding safety should be in the hands of officials, not bound by contractual stipulations.

“I think the city — meaning the police agency and the safety officials in the community — should make the decisions about where the cameras are placed and how the thresholds for ticketing and all that should be clearly in the responsibility of the city,” she said. “I’m surprised if it’s not done that way.”

Speaking specifically about the yellow-light duration extension and whether that could seriously mitigate red-light running violations, McCartt explained it was “really important.” She mentioned a study conducted by IIHS in Philadelphia, which showed a decrease in red-light running violations when a yellow-light time was increased.

When traffic cameras were also added to the mix, however, she noted that violations went down “a whole lot more.”

Some of the PIRG report’s other findings included the threat of termination penalties in San Bernardino, Calif., and Houston when those cities elected to shut down their traffic camera system. The study also noted that Baytown, Texas, paid $1 million to American Traffic Solutions in exchange for early camera removal. The city had a contract with the company for red-light cameras through 2019.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.