Commentary: Red light camera ban not a red herring


One thing I have learned in politics is that you can never predict who will oppose an idea until it’s proposed.

Certainly this is the case with the provision in Measure EE that would ban the use of red-light cameras in Newport Beach. The opponents of Measure EE say we should reject this provision because “it may preclude technological advances beneficial to our city.”

They are wrong, and here is why.

Because I am active in the League of Cities, I get the opportunity to see how issues are addressed across California and throughout our nation. Today, nearly 700 cities use red-light cameras, more than 100 in California.

What many people do not know is that behind the trend to use this type of automatic ticket trap is a sophisticated and well-healed industry. These vendors approach naïve and unsuspecting council members, many of them searching for ways to plug budget holes, and snare them in the red-light camera trap. Costa Mesa, for example, is one city that went this route. The vendors offer “partnerships,” where the private company and the local city split the revenues. With ticket costs often $500 or more, the red-light traps can quickly become like cocaine, an addiction the local government cannot give up.

To help in their efforts, red-light camera vendors employ an army of political consultants, and a bag full of campaign contributions. In Chicago, former Alderman Mark Fary became a consultant to Redflex Traffic Systems, the vendor with an $84-million contract to provide red-light cameras to that city. Fary earned $48,000 for his services to Redflex.

From 2006-11, Redflex employed more than 100 different lobbyists in 18 different states. American Traffic Solutions contributed $140,000 to candidates in Florida when a bill to legalize cameras was up for a vote. From 2003-10, Affiliated Computer Services, another vendor, contributed more than $1 million to political candidates.

But like with cocaine, there are consequences, and quitting is never easy. Many cities reacting to the outrage of their citizens try to end the partnerships, only to find the contract obligates them to punitive cancellation fees. Houston, for example, faced a $25-million withdrawal fee after voters acted to ban the practice. The vendor spent $1.5 million in campaign contributions to oppose the Houston ballot initiative.

In Murrieta, residents circulated an initiative petition to ban the cameras, only to have American Traffic Solutions sue to block the people’s initiative. San Bernardino was forced to abandon its efforts to terminate the program in light of expected termination costs of over $1.9 million. Once again, American Traffic Solutions is expected to earn more than $2.4 million in revenue from San Bernardino motorists.

One of the favorite techniques of these companies is to form “rent-a-citizen” front groups to advocate for red-light cameras on the grounds of “safety.” The problem is of course that the accident rate for intersections with red-light cameras is consistently higher. A lot higher.

In Los Angeles, it was determined that 20 of 32 intersections had more accidents with the cameras. KCAL reported accident rates tripled in L.A. The Washington Post found accidents doubled in the District of Columbia, and in Fort Collins, Colo., they were up 84%. In Portland. Ore., 140%. Oceanside reported an eight-fold increase in rear-end collisions with red-light cameras.

Our opponents are wrong. “New technological advances” will never make red-light cameras more than what they are, a scam and a rip-off aimed at motorists and taxpayers. That is why the Orange County Taxpayers Assn. is supporting Measure EE.

Measure EE follows the lead of the city of Anaheim, which enacted a similar measure in the last election cycle. It stops these insidious, hidden tax machines before the corporate interests can come into our city.

In two years, we will have three new city council members. It is simply not possible to predict what new officials will do or where they will raise their campaign support. That is why we should follow the lead of Anaheim and act now.

For more information on the hidden powers behind red-light cameras, I encourage you to read the report from the U.S. Interest Research Group: Caution: Red Light Cameras Ahead, The Risks of Privatizing Traffic Law Enforcement and How to Protect the Public.

Measure EE does a lot of good things, but one of the best is it protects Newport Beach against red-light camera abuse. Vote yes on Measure EE.

KEITH CURRY is Newport Beach’s mayor pro tem.