"A high-tech, cash-cow intrusion into our lives and pocketbooks"

By Mary Hussmann

COLUMBIA, Mo 10/8/15 (Op Ed)
-- "Today, every invention is received with a cry of triumph which soon turns into a cry of fear."
-- Bertold Brecht

Columbia stopped using red light cameras in 2013. 

But this month, city administrators will recommend that City Council members re-commit to them.  

This time, it's imperative Council members get answers to the many questions, concerns, and even fears that surround this robotic technology.    

In 2009, Massachuetts-based Gatso Corporation signed a Council-approved five-year deal with the city.    Gatso presses communities into installing red light cameras, saying they improve safety.   Columbians need verification of Gatso's claim, with facts and details.  To get that verification, City Council members must ask:  

1.   Are red-light cameras about safety -- or money?  

In August 2013, city administrators reported that since police weren't consistently able to pair the cameras' pictures with driver license pictures, the City lost about $200,000/yr.   They advised Council to approve only taking a picture of the license plate and, if the vehicle was in violation, just ticket the title owner.  

Ticketing the owner rather than the driver does not prevent accidents.  The discussion did not focus on safety.   It was all about money.   The majority of Council members voted 'Yes'.
2.  How many and what type of vehicle and pedestrian accidents occurred at the camera-covered intersections before -- and after -- the camera operation was halted?
We haven't been told exactly how many ticket violations were mailed while the red light camera program was active.   However, on August 21, 2015, the Columbia Tribune reported, "City Prosecutor Steve Richey estimated the City gave out a couple of thousand (red light) citations per year."
3.  What, if any, agency regulates and licenses companies like Gatso?  

Gatso leases the cameras, chooses the sites, installs the cameras, develops the film, maintains the cameras, and gets a part of the "take" for every ticket.  

4.  What will the new fine be?  

Previously, it was $120.00, with the city getting $76.00 and Gatso $44.00 per ticket.  Many places charge less.  

5.  Is it true, as many Columbians contend, that timing of yellow and/or green lights at camera sites was shortened, making these intersections more profitable -- but less safe?  

Scaring drivers into fearing a ticket can make camera intersections more dangerous.   Some communities report drivers, spotting yellow, screech to a halt and cause rear-end accidents -- or 'step on the gas' and violate the speed limit!  

6.  Are red-light cameras just 'greasing the skids' for cameras that also ticket for speeding?   

7.  What is Gatso's policy for keeping or destroying the red light photos?  

Who "owns" the photos?   Where are they stored?  For how long and for what purpose?   

8.  How much money did Columbia illegally generate?   Will the City refund to those illegally charged? 
Missourians statewide took offense to the title-owner ticketing scheme, filing suit.  Last month, the Missouri Supreme Court declared this title-ticketing method unconstitutional and also mandated points be applied against a violator's driver's license.  

St. Louis, Kansas City, and other Missouri towns and cities are refunding money to car owners illegally ticketed.

 9.  Should police officers be comparing photos for fines -- or making better use of their professional time?  

Initially, the cameras took pictures of the front plate and the driver.    Gatso examined them and sent the focused images to our police department, where officers tried to match the photos with the owner's driver's license.   If they succeeded, a ticket was mailed to the alleged offender.   If not, the offender went unpunished.  

10.  Will the Council believe Gatso's claims -- or will they recognize red-light cameras for what they are:  a fear-mongering, high-tech, cash-cow intrusion into our lives and pocketbooks? 

I received my only traffic ticket in 1971 in Kansas City, Kansas when an officer stopped me saying I ran a red light while turning left.  I paid the ticket.  I trusted that the officer was correct.  Assuming officers aren't receiving bonus points for ticketing, I believe drivers trust them over cameras.  
I urge the Council to vote, "No" on another red light camera deal.  

At the very least, since City Prosecutor Richey declines to give a legal opinion of their use, Council should wait until the end of the next Missouri state legislative session when Bills will be filed to restrict the use of red light cameras and other robotic ticketing.  

These bills will be fully debated and, I hope, passed into law.

-- About Mary Hussmann