Report: Taxpayer Safeguards

Caution: Red Light Cameras Ahead

The Risks of Privatizing Traffic Law Enforcement and How to Protect the Public
Released by: Arizona PIRG Education Fund

Privatized traffic law enforcement systems are spreading rapidly across the United States. As many as 700 local jurisdictions have entered into deals with for-profit companies to install camera systems at intersections and along roadways to encourage drivers to obey traffic signals and follow speed limits.

The public interest is threatened when private camera companies and municipalities focus on ticket revenues first and safety second.  Before signing a camera enforcement contract with a vendor, local governments should heed the advice of the Federal Highway Administration and first investigate traffic engineering solutions for problem intersections or roadways. If officials decide that private enforcement systems are appropriate, they should still avoid deals that will limit future decisions about protecting safety.

Pitfalls of Contracting for Traffic Cameras:

  • Contracts between private camera vendors and cities can include payment incentives that put profit above traffic safety.
  • Privatized traffic enforcement system contracts that limit government discretion to set and enforce traffic regulations put the public at risk, including the duration of yellow lights, ticket quotas, and enforcement on right turns.
  • Contracts between camera vendors and cities can include penalties for early termination – or fail to provide provisions for early termination – leaving taxpayers on the hook even if the camera program fails to meet its objectives. 
  • The privatized traffic law enforcement industry has amassed significant political clout that it uses to shape traffic safety nationwide.  Camera vendors lobby aggressively to expand the use of private traffic law enforcement to more states and communities.

To prevent these problems, local government officials who are considering privatized traffic law enforcement should follow ten recommendations outlined in the report to protect the public by ensuring that cameras are not considered as a potential source of revenue but only as a public safety measure.

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