Red light cameras and the "anti-poverty" argument

In Rochester, New York, the mayor is making a controversial change to the city’s law enforcement strategy. Normally when we’re talking about crime here I’m dealing with murders, sexual assaults and all of the truly horrible things which unfortunately happen. This one, however, has to do with traffic violations. Wait! Don’t stop reading yet… there’s a point to be made here.

Mayor Lovely Warren is preparing to shut down the city’s system of automated red light cameras which record motorists running stop lights and are used to issue tickets. Her complaint isn’t that the cameras don’t work properly or are leading to tickets being incorrectly issued, but with the fact that the tickets are disproportionately issued to low income drivers. (Route Fifty)

One of the reasons to pull the plug that was cited by Mayor Lovely Warren isn’t often heard in the wide-ranging local government debate over automated traffic enforcement: Violations recorded by the red-light cameras can disproportionately impact areas with higher rates of poverty.

In Rochester, a study commissioned by the city found that there were more total red light violations in five ZIP codes that had the city’s highest rates of poverty.

“I am particularly concerned that too many of these tickets have been issued to people who can least afford to pay them, which is counterproductive to our efforts to reverse our city’s troubling rates of poverty,” Warren said in a statement. “I cannot, in good conscience, wage a fight against poverty while also imposing burdensome fines that that have a disproportionate impact on people living in poverty. That just doesn’t make sense.”

Let’s focus for a moment on the two reasons why this is crazy, no matter how well the headlines might play in social justice circles. The first one should be obvious… this is not a case of discrimination. While I generally disagree, you can at least somewhat sympathize with complaints about stop and frisk or “overly aggressive” policing which takes place in majority minority neighborhoods. There are human cops involved who have to make daily decisions about who to pursue and how to handle each encounter. If the numbers stack up too far on one demographic side of the scale you can justify asking if there is discrimination going on either by race, gender or economic status.

These are cameras. There are nearly fifty of them installed at busy intersections all over the city. They don’t have any magical software which checks to see how expensive the car is, how nice the driver’s clothes are, the color of their skin or any other indicators of economic status. If you run the red light it takes a picture and reports it. If there are more low income people getting tickets through this system it’s because there are more low income people blowing through traffic lights.

The second factor to consider is that these cameras actually work and produce results.

The Insurance Institute says flipping the switch on the program will likely cost lives. According to their studies, cities that ran with red-light cameras between 2010 and 2014 saw a 21 percent drop in the number of fatal red-light-running crashes, while those that turned their systems off saw a 30 percent increase.

David Goldenberg, a spokesman with the Traffic Safety Coalition, said there’s no question data shows red-light cameras make intersections safer.

“The data is absolutely conclusive that cameras made Rochester roads safer and data from around the country shows that red-light running crashes, injuries and even deaths per capita go up when the cameras get turned off,” he said.

What this story comes down to is yet another case of an elected official forgetting about the rule of law in the interest of some sort of social justice reform. I realize we’re just talking about traffic infractions here, but the fact is that the city (as with pretty much everywhere in the country) has those laws on the books for a reason. You either feel the law is valid and producing positive results for the citizens or you don’t. In this case the data makes it rather obvious. Reducing the number of people running through red lights saves lives. Poverty is a serious problem which needs to be addressed, but giving people a pass on breaking the law – at any level – isn’t solving the problem you’re going after.

By that logic the mayor should direct the police to stop prosecuting people for theft if they are poor because they needed it more. That’s not how this works, Madam Mayor. Your city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on this system and it worked to reduce traffic fatalities. Now you’re pulling the plug on that investment to score some political points.