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Do traffic cameras save lives or violate due process?

May 17, 2014 at 11:29 AM EDT
Ten years ago, only a few dozen communities had red-light or speed-enforcement cameras. Today, hundreds do. On Saturday, we take a look at a debate in Ohio. Camera advocates say the technology saves lives. Opponents say the devices are profit-centers for municipalities and camera manufacturers and a violation of due process.
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RICK KARR: Drivers who run red lights kill nearly seven hundred people every year nationwide. Sue and Paul Oberhauser refuse to call those crashes “accidents.”

PAUL OBERHAUSER: Most of those are intentionally people think they going to get away with it and they run the red light. They never think they’re going to kill a person.

RICK KARR: Their daughter Sarah was killed by a driver who ran a red light in 2002. She was thirty-one years old and a mother of two, a high-school chemistry teacher and basketball coach in Oxford, Ohio. She was on her way to a teacher-training workshop on a Saturday morning when her light turned green.

SUE OBERHAUSER: There was a young man who was 21 years old. And he ran the red light going 55 miles an hour. And he T-boned her car and Sarah was killed instantly.

RICK KARR: The Oberhausers believe there’s a way to prevent crashes like the one that killed their daughter: automated cameras that keep an eye on intersections 24/7. So even when police aren’t there, drivers think twice before running a light. And the proof that they work, according to the Oberhausers, is a forty-minute drive from their farmhouse in Ohio’s state capital.

RICK KARR: The City of Columbus installed its first red-light camera at this intersection in 2006. Since then, it’s put cameras at more than three dozen other intersections. And at those locations, side-impact collisions are down by 74 percent.

GEORGE SPEAKS: We have significantly altered driver behavior for the good here in Columbus, Ohio.

RICK KARR: George Speaks is the city’s deputy public safety director — and a red-light camera evangelist.

GEORGE SPEAKS: Do we have less folks trying to beat the yellow and running lights? And the answer to that is, absolutely. We have over seventy percent less citations than we used to.

RICK KARR: Columbus drivers haven’t turned into angels. But when one does run a red light at an intersection with cameras, it’s captured in a twelve-second video clip.

GEORGE SPEAKS: You’ll note that the red light has been red for a number of seconds, prior to the car coming into the intersection. It’s been red now for what, three thousand, four thousand and the driver, jeopardizing everyone

RICK KARR: The cameras send those videos — and high-resolution photos of the vehicles from behind — to a private contractor. It identifies who owns the car and sends that information back to the Columbus Police Department. Then, cops like Lieutenant Brent Mull review the evidence.

BRENT MULL: Is he safe? Right there. I’m going to say he made a safe turn. He did look, he was in control of his vehicle, there was no pedestrians, and no other cross vehicular traffic. Um, I’m going to reject that.

RICK KARR: Okay.

BRENT MULL: It’s like baseball, if it’s a tie, the runner get the advantage on that. So if it’s a tie there and I can’t really tell we’re going to give the advantage to the person running the light.

RICK KARR: It’s just giving them the benefit of the doubt, essentially.

BRENT MULL: Right, right. This is for safety. It’s not about revenue for me. You know, this city is not going to collapse if I don’t write ticket or if I don’t hit an accept versus a reject on here.

RICK KARR: The private contractor mails citations to drivers — who can pay the ninety five dollar fine … or request a hearing. The contractor processes the fines and gets to keep about thirty percent.

GEORGE SPEAKS: For– a government entity, it is zero dollars to set up. The company up-fronts all the money. In exchange, they receive a percentage. It allows us as a division of police to concentrate, quite frankly, on– more violent crime.

RICK KARR: Studies of red-light cameras effect on crashes aren’t conclusive. Most evidence shows that they cut down on right angle crashes – which tend to be severe. But some research shows that they may lead to more crashes overall – because drivers who slam on the brakes to avoid running lights may be getting into more rear-end collisions. Either way, a lot of motorists just don’t like traffic cameras.

GEORGE SPEAKS: This is probably the most controversial subject matter I’ve ever dealt with in my 20-plus years of experience in government.

RICK KARR: But automated cameras don’t just watch out for red-light runners — they’re also used to nab speeders.

GEORGE SPEAKS: Communities, some communities, have quite frankly used these as speed traps.

RICK KARR: Speed cameras need to be calibrated regularly and the video they capture just show cars driving away – which isn’t as convincing as an image of a light that’s red. Columbus only uses speed cameras in school zones, when a cop is present. But other Ohio municipalities have deployed them more aggressively. Like Elmwood Place, just outside Cincinnati.

There’s one main drag through the town and the police chief has said drivers used to fly through here. But he didn’t have the officers to issue tickets, So after a couple accidents, the town decided to install some automated speed enforcement cameras. Within a few months, that had led to thousands of citations and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

Motorists filed a class action lawsuit arguing that those fines violated their due-process.

MICHAEL ALLEN: With speed cameras and red light cameras you’re guilty until proven innocent. And that’s not right. That offends me as a lawyer. It offends me as a citizen. And it offends me as an American.

RICK KARR: Michael Allen is a former prosecutor and municipal judge in Cincinnati and the lawyer who represented those drivers.

MICHAEL ALLEN: You know, when somebody challenges a speeding citation, which rarely happens, but if it does, that police officer has to raise his right arm and testify that the device he used, the laser radar was properly calibrated, that he is properly trained, that he is certain that the person that is charged is the person that was driving that vehicle. You don’t have these in the speed camera cases.

RICK KARR: A county judge agreed – he called the cameras “a high-tech game of three-card monte, a scam that the motorists can’t win,” and ordered Elmwood Place to remove the cameras. And pay back the fines. And generating income from those fines was why the village installed cameras in the first place, according to Allen.

MICHAEL ALLEN: It’s all about revenue. You’re seeing a trend in this country towards policing for profit. And that’s not what law enforcement is supposed to be about.

RICK KARR: We sat down with the Oberhausers the other day. Their daughter was killed in a side-on collision. Could you look at them and make a due process argument to people who are grieved that their adult daughter was killed?

MICHAEL ALLEN: I think I could. I would do it very respectfully, though, But I’m going to say something that some are going to consider controversial, I think. You see so many times in the criminal justice system where you have the families– of people that have suffered horrible tragedies, and legislators will rush to change laws because of that. And at the end of the day, those laws actually are counterproductive and contrary to due process. That’s not the way to make policy. That’s not the way to legislate.

RICK KARR: Allen won an injunction against another town and he’s filed a third lawsuit against the City of Dayton. Two members of the state House have introduced a bill that would ban cameras in Ohio. Ron Maag represents a mostly-rural district and calls himself a darling of the Tea Party. Dale Mallory represents part of inner-city Cincinnati and calls himself a liberal Democrat. They agree with Michael Allen that cameras violate due process — and are primarily intended to generate revenue. But they’re also concerned about drivers’ privacy.

REP. RON MAAG: Just look at, I mean, this country. The NSA spying on all your phone calls and your computer work we have too much. If you own that store across the street and you want a camera out there to see who is coming in your store. That’s fine by me. But the government has no right to be spying on American citizens.

RICK KARR: Mallory believes police like traffic cameras because they generate revenue, even when they’re reluctant to use them to fight other crimes.

REP. DALE MALLORY: We wanted cameras in our communities for drug dealing, for you know, real serious crimes. And they said, ‘well, you can use that camera but if a guy has got crack in his hand we can identify it but an officer has to be there to confirm it.

RICK KARR: Mallory and Maag say the firms that install the cameras – and take a percentage of the revenue they generate – have organized a lobbying campaign against their bill. Camera advocates Paul and Sue Oberhauser have been part of that effort — they’re co-chairs of a pro-camera group that’s partially funded by camera companies. But they argue that support hasn’t changed their message one bit.

SUE OBERHAUSER: We’re not rich. We can’t go out and fund our message. And– what being with the coalition has done is its given us the ability to access data from all over the country and also to send letters to the editors all over the country, which we would not have had any way of doing otherwise.

PAUL OBERHAUSER: You know, last year we killed almost 700 people running red lights, innocent people one at a time and nobody wants to do anything about it.

RICK KARR: The bill to ban traffic cameras has passed the Ohio House and is now waiting for a Senate vote. The Oberhausers support an alternative that would set standards. Requiring police to review camera evidence and an appeal process.