From the cache of  retired Congressman Dick Armey's former red light camera website

Prepared Testimony For the House Transportation Subcommittee on Highways and Transit Hearing on Red Light Cameras
By House Majority Leader Dick Armey
July 31, 2001

Red Light Running Scam

Mr. Chairman,

Technology can be a tool of freedom. Communication advances like the Internet, for instance, have broken down barriers and spread the message of democracy around the globe. Unfortunately, technology can sometimes serve the opposite effect. New technologies can actually undermine our freedoms and create problems far greater than those they are meant to solve.

For years the federal government has spent millions of dollars promoting photo enforcement systems and helping local jurisdictions install them. It has also modified regulations and national guidelines to accommodate their use. It is astonishing to think that this has gone on in the absence of a national debate.

I would like to thank the Chairman for opening the first public hearing on this important topic. I believe that when one examines fully the consequences of using red light cameras, it will become clear that the devices are more trouble than they are worth.

Cameras and the Constitution

Our judicial system rests on the principle that one is to be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. The Bill of Rights adds the guarantee that one has the right to face one's accuser in court as well as the right to avoid self-incrimination.

Red light cameras violate these judicial principles. Consider how some jurisdictions treat camera violations. California matches up photos from DMV records to the photograph on the ticket. In theory, if the photos are similar, you're guilty. In practice, San Diego's Court Clerk testified that many drivers received tickets even though they obviously weren't the one driving. The ticket recipient must either admit guilt or become an informant against whoever was driving the car.

Other jurisdictions don't even bother attempting to identify the actual driver. Instead, they automatically presume the owner of the car is guilty. Some jurisdictions even treat these tickets as "civil infractions" like parking tickets, further eliminating any possibility of a fair judicial recourse when one is wrongly accused.

These problems can have serious consequences. In states that assign points to these traffic infractions, an individual can lose his license for offenses he never committed. In addition, cities rely on the postal service to serve notice to alleged violators. If their ticket happens to get lost in the mail, they could be found in contempt of court for ignoring a ticket they never received, and face an arrest warrant as a result. These difficulties only arise when the cornerstones of our judicial system are ignored.

Red light camera proponents will often respond by saying that this is a small price to pay. I disagree. I say that our technology should adapt to our Constitution and laws, not the other way around. Five states (Alaska, Nebraska, New Jersey, Utah, and Wisconsin) have recognized this dilemma and banned photo enforcement systems.

It's a hidden tax

Armey's axiom is that "The politics of greed always comes wrapped in the language of love." In this case, the government says its higher motive is safety.

In New York a few years ago, police set up what they called a safety awareness program outside the Bronx Zoo. The Daily News described it as follows: "Hidden behind bushes, the police would roll a car over a sensor on the ground, switching on a red light. If cars drove past the light, they'd be nailed with a $125 ticket" (NY Daily News, 9/21/97). With a straight face, the city defended this program in the name of safety.

Similarly, the District of Columbia set up a single red light camera at a location with a flashing yellow light that would suddenly turn to red. Over 20,000 motorists were caught last year at this H Street location and mailed photo citations. Although the city finally admitted the tickets were unfair, they offered no refunds to those who had already paid their fine.

That's because the true goal of the program is to bring in big revenue, and they have met this goal. The District estimates that its photo enforcement contract will bring it over $160 million. In California, a single San Diego intersection camera in was able to bring in $18.5 million in fines in just 18 months.

These cameras have, in effect, become a hidden tax on motorists.

Corrupting influence

The substantial amount of money involved in red light camera programs has created a conflict of interest that compromises professions whose purpose is to ensure our safety.

Police officers belong on the streets and in the community, not in remote control booths. The community is best served when an officer pulls over a motorist at the scene of the crime. Roadside instruction is far more effective deterrent than a bill that appears in the mail weeks after an infraction.

We all lose when officers of the law are reduced to rubber stamps for the tickets handed to them by a private corporation. Our system of justice is undermined when they are forced to testify in court about acts they never witnessed and about machines they do not understand.

Safety engineers are often caught by the same conflict, and have become profit engineers. They ignore proven engineering methods to increase intersection safety, and instead spend their time identifying the most lucrative camera locations. The Federal Highway Administration encourages this behavior by telling cities they should exploit tragedies at unsafe intersection by holding press conferences calling for even more red light cameras.

Cameras are ineffective

The desire to install red light cameras in this country continues to grow, despite mounting evidence that they are ineffective. Canada has a great deal of experience with photo enforcement systems. Five years ago, the Ontario Premier Mike Harris won his election by promising to eliminate photo radar. Just last month, British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell put an end to the province's five-year photo radar program saying, "Speed cameras have no effect on road safety. They are nothing more than a cash cow." Despite numerous studies, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) could not prove that the photo-radar program had any direct effect on road safety.

Similarly, there is no hard evidence to show that red light cameras have been effective in this country. Cities often cite "reductions in violations" as proof that cameras are effective. But consider the source. Cities that profit from the devices will only release information that makes their program look good. It's often written into their contract that the data about the camera systems—including the contract itself—is "proprietary data" that cannot be released to the public.

There is no public accountability when such provisions are in force. Only when 5,000 pages worth of data was released from a San Diego courtroom did the full picture emerge. The records released under court order showed not only that sensors in the pavement were manipulated to unfairly entrap motorists but also that cameras have proven ineffective in reducing accidents. Only about 12 percent of intersections where yellow signal times remained constant showed a decrease in accidents. The rest either saw no improvement or an increase in accidents.

The data also showed that where the city increased yellow times at a few intersections, violations plummeted. Despite the clear evidence that this engineering measure increased safety in every case it has been tried, San Diego refused to implement this inexpensive safety measure at the rest of the city's intersections. Why not, if the concern is truly safety?


There is only one answer to the so-called red light running crisis. It's called sound engineering. It's called putting cops on the beat, in the midst of our community to do their job. When we turn over the traditional duties of law enforcement to an unthinking machine, we are all diminished. It's time we re-evaluated the government's role in promoting law enforcement by machines that undermine our privacy and system of laws.