Furthest Right

Red light cameras: like the drug war, a slippery slope

I’ve noticed these annoying little gadgets in the news more lately. They’re our latest fascination because they make it so easy to do something — but the definition of that something keeps expanding.

It’s what they call a “slippery slope” because once you start descending it, you slip and slide and gain speed and soon you’re into a much more serious business than you started out with.

Chicago could rake in “at least $200 million” a year — and wipe out the entire projected deficit for 2009 — by using its vast network of redlight and surveillance cameras to hunt down uninsured motorists, aldermen were told today.

An estimated 24 percent of all vehicles on the nation’s roadways are not insured, adding $100a year to the annual insurance rate paid by responsible motorists.

But, aldermen clearly had dollar signs in their eyes after hearing InsureNet’s pitch to enlist the city’s entire network of surveillance cameras — and install new ones at high-traffic locations — in the hunt for the uninsured.

The Sun Times

When there’s a hammer lying around, the temptation to use it occurs — even if that use is to bash someone’s head in. We either try to target the tool, or the temptation.

With automated ticketing cameras, as with most technology, we have a tool that carries temptation in itself: without anyone even having to use it, it automagically gets those bad guys and makes life cheaper for the rest of us.

We knew that this would happen because these cameras have two temptations:

  1. Get the bad guys
  2. Hey, a little profit never hurt anyone, and we’re broke

But being broke for a government is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Get more money, spend more money, thus need more money. It’s like expanding your farm: every time you add an acre, you need more money to plant, water, dig, etc. that new acre.

At the nexus of “profit” and “bad guys” is a dangerous interzone where no one really cares about the victims, and everyone wants the cash or cash saved. Sin taxes. Prison rape. Even internet piracy. Our moral justifications become weapons because by assessing someone as a bad guy, we make it OK to take from them.

As more cities sign up and others invest their profits into more cameras, those companies expect increased revenue for years to come.

What’s less clear is whether the cameras improve safety. While studies show fewer T-bone crashes at lights with cameras and fewer drivers running red lights, the number of rear-end crashes increases.

The largest red-light camera company, Redflex Traffic Systems of Scottsdale, operates red-light or speed cameras in 22 states, and added 79 cities last year. It signed a $32 million maintenance contract with Chicago last fall, and in just the last three weeks of last year, Redflex added five new cities.

Redflex saw net, after-tax profits of $10.6 million in fiscal year 2008, up from $7.3 million the year before.

That ticket in Clive shows why: More than half of the $75 fine went to Redflex.


Half of the profit goes to the corporation that installed the cameras. But still, “new” money goes to the city.

And when they spend more money, they need more money, and start looking for a way to add more to their coffers.

Have we seen this pattern before?

The Drug War cost law enforcement agencies lots of money to fight everyday. When they seized guns and drugs, those items get destroyed, but what happens to money and cars impounded from these crimes? It actually gets reinvested to get narcotics off the streets,

This equipment was made possible through drug forfeiture money that comes from car auctions and money seizures.

“We’ve been able to buy equipment if the city itself were having to fund it we would not be able to get,” Chief Torres said. “They just would not be able to afford it.”

Some critics accuse these officers who regularly patrol roadways of being highway pirates, but top-ranking officers said they make sure the seizures are tied to drugs.

In Jim Wells County, nearly $300,000 bought new patrol cars, laptop computers four drug dogs and a bomb sniffing dog.


The war on some drugs (conspicuously, alcohol and tobacco were left out) introduced this concept of zero tolerance seizure: if we find any drugs or drug money on your property, we seize it.

Boats. Cars. Houses. Even business complexes. Where does it end? Well, we always need money, and they’re still bad guys.

I am not against destroying parasites, or exiling bad guys. I am not really against confiscating their property. But I would like to point out that it’s a slippery slope. The first generation sets it up, and uses it responsibly. When there’s new personnel, or new budget shortfalls, the use gets expanded. Inch by inch, it creeps outward.

Red light cameras are going the same way. At first the justification was that we would bust those who run red lights and make the streets safer… and profit. But that cause/effect gets reversed, and so when we need some profit to fill up budget shortfalls, we go looking for new bad guys.

There’s a disturbing possibility that search doesn’t end. Using non-green lightbulbs? Smoking in bed? Haven’t paid your TV tax? Here they come, because you’re now a source of profit, having made yourself a “bad guy” by the ever-increasing definition of the hour.

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