Jayne O'Donnell, USA TODAY
Courts, government officials and motorists seeing red over traffic-light cameras are increasingly directing their fury toward the companies that sell the devices.
At issue: contracts that give companies up to half of ticket revenue and shortened yellow lights that catch more motorists.
Camera companies say they don't set the timing of the lights - cities and counties do. And the manufacturers note that in many communities, local governments aren't allowed to share ticket proceeds with the vendors.
But that hasn't stopped the complaints nor stunted the spread of red-light cameras. Sales of the cameras have nearly quadrupled since companies moved to digital and wireless technology in the mid-2000s. The number of local contracts for cameras was up to 689 last year, from 155 in 2005, according to industry data complied by market leader American Traffic Solutions (ATS).
Camera maker Brekford, for example, this month announced a nearly 10% increase in revenue in 2012, which it called a "watershed year," because of the company's selection as the red-light and speed camera vendor for Baltimore. The contract is the largest in North America and triples the number of traffic cameras the company has in the U.S.
Yet recent developments continue to darken the picture for the controversial cameras:
• Four top officials of Redflex Traffic Systems, the second-largest camera company, stepped down in the past month after an internal probe showed an employee bribed a city official to get the company's $2 million Chicago red-light camera contract.
• ATS settled 16 New Jersey class-action lawsuits in late December over yellow-light timing.
• The Collier County board of commissioners in Florida voted in December to discontinue its red-light cameras amid rumors that some yellow lights were shortened.
ATS spokesman Charlie Territo says red-light and speed camera programs have nearly always been upheld in court on appeal. But the legal challenges continue. Last week, an Ohio trial judge blocked the village of Elmwood Place's speed camera program, calling it a "scam on motorists" in part because the camera company got 40% of what could be $2 million in ticket revenue in six months. The village is appealing.
"There is a very vocal minority who latch onto these red herrings - saying cameras are only about money, that we set the timing, and they are unconstitutional," says Territo.
Camera companies' control over almost everything to do with the cameras makes them unethical even if they aren't deemed illegal, charges Richard Diamond, editor of anti-red-light-camera website TheNewspaper.com.
Those businesses provide turnkey services that include functions such as "writing talking points for the police for the city council meetings" and helping to decide "which intersections have the most promising engineering deficiencies to exploit," says Diamond. That, he says, raises questions about motives.
HOW IT WORKS
Territo says his company does consult with local government officials on the best places to put cameras but says placement is ultimately up to the people who hire ATS.
"This is a very high-profile industry," says Territo. "In most cases, we find that there isn't a great deal of knowledge about how the programs actually work."
The camera companies typically take all the risk, he says, and local governments don't have to pay anything upfront. They also review and process the violations. Most contracts, he says, charge government entities flat fees although some governments award a percentage of each paid violation to the companies.
Elmwood Place, which has about 2,000 residents and is nearly surrounded by the city of Cincinnati, saw splitting revenue with camera-maker Optotraffic as a way to get commuters to reduce their speeds without having to do all the administrative tasks needed to process tickets, says Optotraffic spokesman Tim Ayers. "We weren't getting terribly rich on it," says Ayers.
Mike Allen, the Ohio attorney who represented the 350 people who sued over the speed cameras, says many of the ticketed drivers were outraged Procter & Gamble employees going to and from work through Elmwood Place.
He says there was no evidence Optotraffic's cameras were ever calibrated so there was no way to ensure the vehicles were actually speeding when drivers were ticketed.
In Florida, Collier County commissioners board Chairman Georgia Hiller blames the previous board for approving red-light cameras there but faults ATS for lobbying state officials "beyond belief" and even "cold-calling citizens to inflame them" so they'd push legislators to keep the cameras. Florida election records show the company has made nearly $500,000 in campaign donations since 2008.
Worse yet, there was no evidence of a safety benefit in the more than two years that red-light cameras were in place, Hiller adds.There were 17 crashes at the 10 intersections involved before cameras due to drivers running red lights - and the same number during roughly the same time period after the cameras, she contends.
"The public should not be subjected to any tax or fine if no public benefit comes back to them," says Hiller, referring to the red-light tickets.
Yellow-light timing questions, Hiller says, were unrelated to the use of red-light cameras.
When done properly, however, the cameras do improve safety, some studies have shown. The 10 Philadelphia intersections with cameras in place for at least three years saw a 24% reduction in crashes, the Pennsylvania State Transportation Advisory Committee reported last fall.
"Red-light cameras are a proven, effective enforcement tool, and they're making intersections safer," says Anne McCartt, senior vice president of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "It's human behavior 101: When drivers know there's a high likelihood of a ticket, they're less likely to run red lights."
Any bad business behavior shouldn't take away from the safety benefits, says Redflex's new CEO, Robert DeVincenzi, who says his company has "confronted the mistakes of our past."
"As an industry ... we have not always met the corporate governance standards that our clients deserve," he said in an e-mailed statement Monday. "We are setting the highest standard for ethical conduct in our industry, and we challenge our competitors to match us."