The City of Seattle is Committing Red Light Robbery
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.
A portion of this piece originally appeared in the Slightly Less Disappointing Blog.