Monday, June 26, 2006

Red Light, Green Light

The Des Moines Register has a story on the proposed red-light cameras in Clive. The gist:
Clive officials still plan to start snapping photos and ticketing red-light runners this summer even though the ACLU of Iowa is challenging the constitutionality of speeding cameras in Davenport.

"If you cross the line after the light turns red, smile and say, 'Cheese,' because you're going to get a $75 ticket," Clive City Manager Dennis Henderson said Wednesday after being told of the ACLU's action.

While the idea of a city investing money into a big-brotheresque system of surveillance primarily to increase revenue is nowhere near unique, I was rather intrigued that the City was so bold as to flatly state the revenue-gathering motive behind the cameras, rather than passing off the system as a safety device installed for the good of the public.

But the article becomes rather convoluted in trying to briefly outline the legal issues surrounding camera tickets:
The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa announced Wednesday that it was defending a Davenport driver, who received a speeding ticket in his mailbox after an automatic camera snapped photos of his vehicle.

Ben Stone, ACLU of Iowa executive director, said he filed a motion asking for dismissal of the ticket because it violates state speeding laws, thus violating the constitutional rights of the accused.

I think what they're getting at is that criminal law, being statutory, must be strictly construed to adhere to the statutes as written, with a sufficient degree of definiteness to alert citizens as to the nature and extent of the prohibition being codified. I believe this portion of the concept of procedural due process was labeled by my notes from crimlaw class as the "you can't just make shit up rule." But the way it's phrased here almost makes it sound like a violation of Iowa's speeding laws equates to a violation of the constitution of Iowa (or the US, I can't quite figure which), which is confusing at best. On a side note, I also think the ticket charges could be vulerable to attack via sufficient identification issues, should the photos be clear enough to identify the car but not the driver.

But more interesting is the quote from a Davenport officer:
"The bottom line," Struckman said, "is I don't think you have any constitutional right to endanger another person."

By extrapolation, then, all civil rights to proper identification, prior notice, speedy trial, and other due process rules are moot if the charge purports that the defendant endangered someone? I'm not so sure the courts will agree with that one. Though he did succeed in bringing the requisite "it's a safety issue" party line back to the subject:
The objective of using the cameras is to reduce the number of accidents, he said. Still, $220,000 in revenue from the tickets has been used on improving public safety and putting more officers on the street. And the idea is catching on in several other Iowa cities, Struckman said.

"I am not an advocate of the Big-Brother system," he said, "but I am if it gets people to drive accordingly."

The difficulty: Studies have shown that the cameras actually increase the rate of accidents at intersections.
Since the District of Columbia installed its first red light camera in 1999, The Washington Post has championed use of photo enforcement technology on both its editorial and news pages. Now, five years into the program, the District's largest newspaper has discovered that accidents are up significantly as a result of their use.

A comparison of accidents at camera intersections before and after they were installed produced the following results:

Accident Type19982004Change

The accident doubling effect is not a statistical anomaly, happening in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2004. In 2003 accidents did increase, but by less than 100 percent.

Camera proponents often argue that the devices create a "halo effect" that spreads improved driving habits throughout the city, including intersections where red light cameras are not installed. In the District, accidents increased citywide by 61 percent. Camera-free intersections experienced an additional 64 percent in accidents overall, a 54 percent increase in fatal and serious injury accidents and a 17 percent rise in t-bone collisions.

A roundup of studies finding similar results is here, showing seven separate findings in cities showing accident increases following red-light camera installations in On the other hand, a synthesis of studies here argues that while rear-end accidents are increased, there is some evidence that right-angle types of accidents might be decreased by the system, and opines that the decrease in right-angle accidents may be sufficient monetary and safety benefit to outweigh the increase in rear-end collisions.

I suspect that, going by a strictly economic analysis, the net result for a city is likely to be positive, particularly when you include the fine revenues into the monetary mix along with the savings from some of the right-angle collisions. However, I think it's disingenuous to argue that the safety benefits are clear.

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