Despite legal challenges elsewhere, red light camera program in Philadelphia appears safe

By Jon Campisi | Sep 12, 2011

Red light traffic camera programs employed in various municipalities nationwide have withstood a number of legal challenges.

The traffic enforcement tool and revenue generator has also lost its share of battles, both legal and those of public opinion.

One thing remains certain: Philadelphia’s own red light camera program doesn’t seem to be on the chopping block anytime soon.

In fact, intersections where the cameras are being installed have increased in number in recent years.

And word has it that the state legislature is even considering allowing the program to operate in other Pennsylvania municipalities.

But the fact that in late August, the Houston, Texas city council voted to disband its own red light camera program raises questions about the program’s viability in other places, including Philadelphia, the fifth largest city in the U.S.

Philadelphia’s red light camera program was made possible through an act of the state legislature in 2002. The law gave a City of the First Class, (in Pennsylvania, the only one is Philadelphia), the ability to operate red light cameras at certain intersections deemed in need of stricter enforcement. The idea is to catch scofflaws running red lights in areas where police officers are not on constant patrol.

Violators caught running red lights have their licenses plates photographed and are issued $100 fines through the mail. Because the tickets are not issued by a law enforcement agency, but rather administratively, violators do not receive any points on their driver’s licenses.

But the fact that anyone other than police officers are issuing traffic fines is a point of contention in and of itself, and has led to the program being questioned at various times since its inception.

After a long back-and-forth, the city of Houston, Texas in late August decided to scrap its red light camera program.

In November 2010, voters in Houston elected to turn off the cameras, but the referendum was ruled invalid by a federal judge, according to an Aug. 24 article in the Houston Chronicle.

In late August, however, the Houston city council voted to officially disband the program, which the article says has been banned in more than a dozen cities and nine states.

Los Angeles, CA also scrapped its red light camera program this summer, the Chronicle article states, mostly because the west coast city was losing money on the program, one that is generally credited with doing just the opposite.

American Traffic Solutions, one of three major companies that operate red light camera programs nationwide, still believe in the effectiveness of the program despite the changes in places like Houston and Los Angeles.

ATS spokesman Charles Territo said the safety camera program, as he calls it, has been a true success story, and places like Houston have scrapped it for political reasons, not lack of effectiveness.

Territo said ATS operates 5,500 cameras in 24 states plus the District of Columbia. Cities where the program has been adopted include New York, New Orleans, and, yes, Philadelphia, where ATS is responsible for the installation and maintenance of the cameras.

In Philly, however, the Philadelphia Parking Authority is technically charged with administering the red light camera program, although ATS gets a share of the cut.

A look at the figures show red light cameras are a decent moneymaker for the City of Philadelphia.

In 2010, total revenues for the red light camera program were $13.7 million, according to PPA spokesman Richard Dixon. ATS took $4.1 million of that total figure.

To some, the idea that private companies would benefit from traffic tickets issued to motorists on public roads is problematic. But Territo pointed out that his company gets paid on a fixed-fee contractual basis, meaning it doesn’t get a share of the cut from traffic violations, contrary to popular belief.

“The vast majority of our programs operate on a fixed fee,” he said. “Those programs have built-in safeguards to ensure that taxpayers are never left paying for the operation of the program.”

Contracts vary per locality, Territo said.

In Philadelphia, ATS does not receive revenue from tickets themselves, the PPA’s Dixon said, but rather gets that flat fee.

Dixon said state lawmakers crafted the law precisely this way so there was no question of impropriety.

“They get paid the same fees no matter how many violations are issued,” Dixon said.

To others, the issue of the program strictly being a revenue generator for localities has been a bone of contention. Texas attorney Michael Kubosh, a strong opponent of the program, was integral in helping to get the cameras thrown out of Houston.

Opponents like Kubosh view the program strictly as a revenue generating scam that doesn’t make the roads safer. (One school of thought is that the cameras actually increase vehicle accidents, since drivers may slam on their brakes to avoid a ticket, thereby leading to more rear-end collisions).

Phil Kline, an attorney from Bucks County, Pa., hasn’t had any particular experience in the area of red light cameras. However, as a lawyer specializing in civil rights issues, he’s somewhat familiar with issues related to red light cameras, and he’s not surprised to hear that people would be challenging program.

One claim made by the program’s opponents that Kline is familiar with has to do with a belief that local governments are speeding up yellow light duration times in order to catch red light runners more effectively.

While Kline isn’t against red light cameras, per se, he does take issue with the claim that yellow lights may be getting shortened at some intersections.

“The difference between a red light camera and having a cop sit there is just technology,” Kline said, reiterating his stance that he sees nothing inherently wrong with the camera program itself.

But, changing the rules to make people violators, such as shortening yellow lights, “is bad,” he said.

The red light camera program is designed to improve safety, Kline said, not to enable governments to maximize revenues through ill-gotten means.

From a legal standpoint, however, Kline doesn’t see any major constitutional issues with the operations of the program.

And Territo, of the ATS, couldn’t agree more. In fact, the safety camera program, he claims, has come out the winner in all major legal challenges involving questions over the program’s constitutionality.

Some lower courts have ruled the program unconstitutional, Territo admitted, “but all of those rulings have been overturned along the way.”

“Courts throughout the country, from the local to the appellate to the federal appellate circuit court level, have all upheld the constitutionality of safety cameras,” he said.

(Territo provided the Pennsylvania Record with a handful of court decisions that came out in favor of ATS).

There doesn’t seem to be any pending litigation surrounding the red light camera program here in Philly, at least not yet.

“There have been no legal challenges filed over the Philadelphia program,” said Dixon, of the PPA, citing information given to him by the authority’s legal counsel.

The first red light camera in Philadelphia was installed in February 2005. And for now, at least, it doesn’t appear they’re going anywhere anytime soon.

“Philly’s program has been an overwhelming success,” Territo said. “Not only has the camera program seen a reduction in violations, a reduction in red light running, but Philly’s actually added additional cameras.”

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