Many areas of the country are experiencing a sudden rise in the number of speed and traffic cameras installed near roads. While some cameras have been a welcome development in curbing dangerous driving, many motorists have complained about what they perceive as an effort by authorities to simply extract revenue without community input on such policies. Growing evidence that many privatized traffic companies use faulty information, including right-hand turns, to assign red light tickets has only added to the anger. As legislators confront the backlash, a self-interested partnership has formed to lobby against accountability methods for these cameras: police unions and for-profit red-light camera companies.
In state after state, police unions and for-profit traffic camera companies have teamed up to defeat laws proposed to ensure that traffic policies are designed for public safety rather than to collect revenue. In Connecticut, police unions and traffic light companies opposed efforts to simply expand the length of yellow lights -- despite studies showing that doing so would reduce red-light violations by 90 percent -- in favor of increased for-profit red light cameras. In Florida last year, American Traffic Solutions, one of the largest for-profit camera corporations, hired 17 lobbyists to defeat a similar bill. The company circulated a letter signed by police chiefs, and worked closely with officials from the Florida Sheriff's Association, a labor group, to pressure legislators. In California, a bill by State Sen. Joseph Simitian (D-Palo Alto) to ensure that traffic cameras can only be set up to promote public safety rather than collect revenue was opposed by the California Police Chiefs, a law enforcement labor union group.
The media is beginning to take note of the collusion between police unions and for-profit camera companies. In Texas, a high-ranking police union official was reportedly paid simultaneously by American Traffic Solutions to lobby against legislation to limit the use of these cameras, according to an investigation by a local ABC News affiliate. Across the country, for-profit traffic light companies have hidden behind a front group they set up called the "National Coalition for Safer Roads" to defeat efforts to ensure traffic lights are only set up for public safety reasons. Police union representatives have appeared with the group.
In many states, like Iowa, municipalities enter contracts with private camera operators and share part of the proceeds with local law enforcement. The financial incentives help explain why so many police union representatives have eagerly joined companies like American Traffic Solutions in fighting legislation to promote public safety. Of course, for-profit camera companies have every reason to lobby aggressively as well. A report from Maryland PIRG on wide-ranging abuses from the privatization of traffic cameras notes that Redflex Traffic Solutions, another large for-profit red light camera company, concedes that "aggressive" ticketing, not safety, is their priority:
"This focus on profit can be clearly seen in Redflex's annual report to shareholders, where executives describe how 'tighter contract language' and 'more aggressive collection efforts in key markets' are important tactics the company will deploy to increase return for its investors in the coming year."
The red light companies have invested heavily in lobbying state legislators. RedFlex, over a five-year period, employed over 100 lobbyists in 18 different states; American Traffic Solutions has spent over $1.3 million in lobbying since 2007 and provided over $200,000 in campaign contributions in 2010 alone.
The partnership between police unions and privatized camera companies have led to some odd policy choices. As the Maryland PIRG study notes, for-profit traffic light companies have pushed contracts that limit government discretion in deciding how to enforce traffic violations. The arrangement essentially limits the role of law enforcement in their own communities.
Though police unions have lobbied against bills to promote public safety over collecting revenue, there are divisions within the union. The national Police Chiefs Association has acknowledged that "too many jurisdictions have obtained red light cameras to generate revenue" and recommends that future policies should only promote public safety.