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The City of Seattle is Committing Red Light Robbery

24 August 2009 Seattle 56,322 views 12 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

The role of government should not be to annoy, monitor and bleed us dry, but to deliver and maintain appropriate, critical services with integrity, effectiveness and common sense. It is not proper or desirable for city government to get into bed with private business to accomplish what business always wants — to make money. Not that there is anything wrong with that, so long as it is done honestly and legally — let’s just keep the rules of the game clear.

Can we all stipulate we are satisfied with the current level of mutual back scratching and incompetence in local government without bringing the pros from out-of-state into the game? Here in Seattle, we are comfortable with the niceness of it all; here, the Tony Sopranos drive hybrids, wear cool sneakers, bring reusable bags to the co-op and only drink fair trade coffee.

In 1999, Peter Robb wrote the excellent and well-researched book, Midnight in Sicily, about the origins of the Cosa Nostra and the shocking revelations of Mafia/Governmental partnerships at all levels of government in Italy. Robb describes how one mob defendant, on trial in 1947 for the murder of 11 people, cried out during testimony: ”Bandits, police, state, they’re all one body, like Father, Son and Holy Ghost!” Before he could reveal the politicians behind the crime, he was poisoned. As so often the case, telling the truth is risky.

As you sit sipping your fair trade coffee reading this, private companies, mostly based in Arizona, are approaching city governments with offers they can’t refuse. The deal is something like this: You give us the authority, and we’ll install cameras at key intersections, photograph cars that run stoplights, then we’ll send a $145 ticket to the owner along with a nice photo of the offending vehicle. BUSTED! Without any messy, direct human contact whatsoever. The private firm keeps 30% of the fine and the City gets 70%.

This information comes from the British magazine the Economist. It’s along the lines of the successful gambling casino/state government revenue sharing program in Nevada.

This sneaky program costs a city nothing to install — so there is no irritating budget review or debate about whether it passes the smell test. There isn’t any real discussion about anything. The righteous position of the municipal pashas is that this is for our safety, for our own good… This rings so hollow I won’t waste any more words on it.

This is government and private corporations working well together to screw people out of what little money they have left. It is a purported solution for a problem that doesn’t actually exist. Ask an independent traffic expect who has no vested interest in the program; he’ll tell you that the running of red lights is very low on the list of traffic accident concerns. There are far more compelling safety violations that merit focus and resources. And the cameras actually cause an increase in accidents.

Here is a list of the 30 Seattle locations with red-light cams. This link is a puffy PR piece on the “pilot project” by the Seattle Police that admits, “There is little evidence that cameras have decreased the frequency of all auto crashes or of the more dangerous angle collisions.” The page also gives you a handy button to click: “PAY RED LIGHT TICKETS ONLINE.”

he Seattle Police statement goes on to say:  “The pilot project evaluation team also has concluded that the American Traffic Solutions vendor has performed well at a reasonable cost, and the public, in general, has responded favorably to this program.” What?  I seriously doubt you’ll find anyone without a vested interest in this program who has “responded favorably.”  Who writes this stuff?  Saying untrue things do not make them true, although it never stops some folks from trying.

The online evaluation report for the 24 months ending in 2008 says the take from fines totaled over $2 million. Expenses broke down as follows: The $518,000 cut to American Traffic Solutions; $217,000 to the Seattle Police Department to “review and issue infraction notices;” $111,000 to the Seattle Department of Transportation; $80,000 to the Municipal Court and $30,000 to the “Law Department,” whatever that is. That leaves over $1 millon to go into the City’s coffers to help pay the consultants and the copywriters who also believe in unicorns.

Instead of improving safety, the intersection cameras cause rear-end collisions to soar, as panicked drivers slam on their brakes to avoid running through a yellow or red light. Have you nearly slammed into the car in front at 15th Ave. and Market St. in Ballard, or at 14th Ave. S. and Cloverdale in West Seattle, or at many the North Seattle intersections along Aurora Avenue? If not, buckle up, pilgrim. Your time is coming.

But wait, it gets better: The rate of red light violations can be goosed to increase dramatically when yellow light time is reduced from the current standard four seconds to three seconds — which has been done in certain locations. Scalping that one extra second means big money to local government. Eventually a yellow light could go down to two seconds, then to one second, with big revenue increases at each step. No tax increases needed with this program! Genius.

(For the record, I have never received a red-light camera ticket — though I have been called some very bad names by drivers behind me for stopping suddenly at certain red light cam intersections.)

Our good-natured citizens have long endured an ongoing, inventive flogging from taxes, fees, fines, rules and regulations to make us poorer and fill our days with compliance red tape from city government — but at least we had the option from time to time to vote the rascals out. But today these new spy cam programs, along with the juicy money they produce, are supported by all elected officials.

This diabolical program marries corporate extortion expertise with the hammer of law. It gets codified into law and set in stone. We’ll never end this con job and it will expand exponentially — it is too juicy for City Hall to say no to wheelbarrows full of cash without effort. Once city government gets that income stream of dollars, it turns into a junkie who can’t quit.

What about an honest examination of what local government should actually provide and an honorable approach, with respect and intelligence, on how to do it, without the control and influence of party hacks, expensive consultants, untouchable municipal unions, corporate fat cats, and the hordes of suckling piglets slurping away on the teats of local government, engorged by the cash of abused citizens?

Naaaaah, that might change things. Sweet dreams, Seattle. Pay your fines promptly to avoid further penalties and have a NICE day.

Mark Pahlow

A portion of this piece originally appeared in the Slightly Less Disappointing Blog.

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  1. That’s not the sort of government I want to pay for. Thanks a lot for the information, and for the list of camera locations, too.

  2. I’m not a fan of any expansion of government (at any level); government has fouled up enough of society as it is. I don’t particularly want their type of “efficiency” in any more aspects of my life.

    I’d rather they place those cameras in the offices of legislators, and fine those that are sleeping on the job. Can you imagine the revenue that would generate?

  3. I (well, my mother) received one of these tickets for not coming to a complete stop before taking a free right at the corner of 15th and Market (heading north onto 15th) while I was driving my mom’s car. She signed the back of the ticket, relinquishing responsibility and thus turning me in. Nice, Mom. At any rate, the city dropped the ticket. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the fact that I have an Oregon license. The woman who answered the phone was reluctant to give any info and basically told me to just be happy that it was dropped. I think their days are numbered. I’m waiting for those damn flashing lights to give somebody a seizure…

  4. Thanks for an informative piece. I didn’t know the part about the out of state vendors, but am not surprised. This business of outsourcing the city’s responsibility needs to stop. I have had repeated problems with the yard waste contractor failing to pick up my yard waste. I asked for a credit and had to seek the assistance of city council president Conlin, who made it happen. Last collection day another miss. Now the city’s phone line doesn’t provide an obvious way to report the missed collection, and this was a second call I made, so they changed it within four or five days. And, the recycling folks took away several items with a value of nearly $25. When I complained the city told me I would have to make a claim with the contractor or go to small claims court because they had outsourced their responsibility to me. Still waiting for help on that one. Maybe I should take the day off work and GO to small claims court, then see if I can get the lost pay awarded as damages. They want to save money by outsourcing their responsiblities to low paying contractors whose employees are either unable or unwilling to do their jobs properly. Time for us to throw the rascals out.

  5. We had these cameras in Minneapolis, briefly, before they were declared unconstitutional. Neener neener neener.

  6. […] by one, the streets of Seattle are falling under alien influence. Along with robotic red-light cameras at key intersections around Seattle and around the nation, we are now faced with an invasion of […]

  7. The first time I ever saw the red-light cameras was in Australia around 1982. I figured it would be just a matter of time before they became common-place in America. My hometown installed some several years ago.

  8. First of all we get it. Then wrap it up. More to the point, I think cameras to catch ****ers running red lights is awesome. We have laws people. If everybody just obeys them we all get along fine. If the light’s green go. If it turns yellow quickly decide if you have room to stop or if you should continue forward. If it’s red stop. If you have to “slam” your brakes for a yellow light you’re probably speeding. If you get caught braking the law and have to pay a fine don’t blame the enforcer. It’s not like we don’t why we have traffic lights or what they mean. There’s already too many people driving around forgetting that comfortable seat they’re in is actually a 2000 lb. piece of metal travelling at 30 mph.

  9. Tim,

    What you fail to realize is that people have ben getting tickets for NOT breaking the law. People get tickets for making right turns on red lights, which is completely LEGAL! The camera is simply programmed to take a picture of any car that passes the “stop line” when the light is red. The camera will also take a picture if you barely go over the stop line when you come to a stop.

    Using your mentality, police should be able to search your house without cause, because if you aren’t doing anything illegal then you don’t have anything to worry about.

    Your comment, about slamming on their brakes at a yellow light means you must be speeding, is very ignorant. The reason people have been slamming their brakes is to avoid the camera taking a picture of them simply because they passed under the traffic light as it turned red. I’ve seen this happen to many cars in the Seattle area; they were not speeding.

    You can look up the stats from cities in states like California that have used the traffic cameras. They had a RISE in accidents due to the cameras because people would slam on their brakes at every yellow light. A lot of rear-endings happened.

    I think you also missed the point that at some of these camera lights they LOWER the yellow light time from 4 seconds to 3 seconds. That’s 1/4 of the normal time that you lose. The rest of the non-camera lights have 4 second timers. That isn’t a fair system, its a money making scheme.

  10. […] Get rid of those damn red-light cameras. Details here. […]

  11. […] The truth about Seattle's intersection cameras […]

  12. Government is for the people not for making a profit. This is pure and simple greed. Until people pass a referendum making these cameras illegal it will not stop. IMAN anyone ??

    Marijuana is illegal too .. How about private security firms hired by the city to enforce all drug laws and splitting the profits with the city and state. Think of all the fines and great property that could be seized. This would make Seattle safer and save are police department from these trivial things. I think I will email DYNCORP and L3 this buisness plan. THey can lobby it to Christine O’Grady Gregoire


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