Wrong Ideas on Traffic Cameras

I live near the intersection of Chain Bridge Road (route 123) and Eaton Place in Fairfax, Virginia. This particular intersection—which I pass through often—is somewhat dangerous and confusing. One complex set of signals controls traffic coming from literally five separate roads. Not only that, but much of the traffic heading south on 123 has just exited off of Interstate 66 and is still moving at near-freeway speeds. (Click to see a map centered on a hotel near the intersection; you can zoom in with the slider as needed.)

Because the traffic coming in from the north on 123 is usually moving so quickly, they are also a lot less likely to stop at this complicated light when it turns red. Thus, it was a perfect location for Fairfax [City/County—not sure which] to install an automatic red light camera in Virginia’s pilot program.

I have never been caught by the red light camera—probably because I don’t run red lights—but I have seen innumerable others busted by it, and I cheer for the technology every time. There is no excuse for running a red light, and the more people we punish for doing it the better.

So, needless to say, I was a little surprised when the Virginia legislature dropped the ball on extending the pilot program. I was especially surprised by the dubious reasoning: The cameras, which verifiably reduce oft-deadly t-bone accidents caused by accelerating red-light runners, significantly increase the number of comparatively-minor rear-ender accidents caused by inattentive tailgaters. (Read about it from the AP via

So the accidents at intersections with cameras get less severe, injuries get less severe, lives are saved, but the program is a failure because the raw number of accidents increases slightly? And we pay each of these people $17,640/year to come up with this tripe?

Another big argument against the red-light cameras is that they are an invasion of privacy. This argument is so entirely baseless that I will give it little more attention than this: Red lights are in a public space; it is not an invasion of privacy to photograph anything in a public space or charge somebody for a crime when the commission of said-crime is captured in said-photograph.

The truth is that running red lights is incredibly dangerous, ignorant, rude, and stupid. Red-light cameras serve two important purposes relative to this fact: they discourage red-light running and they ensure that people who run red lights anyway will be punished. Both of these are important and fully justified purposes—as anybody who lives near a dangerous intersection like Chain Bridge and Eaton can attest.

I do, however, have three issues with red-light cameras (which do not outweigh my support for them, but are worth noting):

First, the person who owns the car is not responsible for the criminal acts of another driver. If I’m driving Melissa’s car and I run a red light where there’s a camera, the ticket will go to Melissa (even though I committed the crime) and she will have to go through the hassle of having the charge dismissed. We need to develop a better way of making sure that tickets go to the red-light runners themselves, rather than automatically to the owner of the car.

Second, every ticket brings money into local government coffers (and, sometimes, into contractors’ pockets) which can lead to abuses of the system. There are documented cases where local governments or contractors rigged short yellow lights or used other gimmicks to increase ticket revenue. Thus, contractors must be paid a flat monthly rate for camera operation (as opposed to a per-ticket rate) and signals must be independently audited for irregularities.

Third and finally, accepting red-light cameras sets a precedent for implementing other automatic traffic enforcement systems—some of which are unnecessary and, frankly, stupid.

Which brings me about 20 miles to the east of Chain Bridge and Eaton. While Virginia’s idiotic inaction will likely lead to the demise of red-light cameras in the state, Washington, DC’s government is moving forward on an ill-advised speed camera pilot program (Read about it from

You may be wondering why I think red-light cameras are okay, but speed cameras are unacceptable. The answer has nothing to do with accident rates or privacy; it has to do with safety and equal protection.

Running a red light is always dangerous. It doesn’t matter what the weather conditions are, what the traffic volume is, or how fast you’re going; if you enter an intersection after your light has turned red, you are putting others at serious risk of injury.

Speeding, however, is not automatically dangerous. The limits are usually set artificially low—below the ‘natural’ speed at which people drive on that road in ideal conditions—and enforcement is, at best, irregular. DC’s speed cameras only record an infraction if it’s above an arbitrary, undefined ‘threshold’ speed (according to their FAQs [no longer available]).

But who’s to say that DC’s arbitrary, undefined ‘threshold’ is the speed at which driving becomes unsafe for a particular road? Does the machine take the road’s ‘natural’ safe speed into account independently of the imposed speed limit? Does the machine consider road conditions and traffic volume? How about visibility? How about the braking ability of each individual car? And, if the undefined ‘threshold’ is really the magic speed at which driving on that road becomes unsafe, why don’t they make that the speed limit?

Do you see my point though? Whether ‘speeding’ (a concept which is somewhat arbitrary in-and-of itself) is dangerous depends on millions of little factors, and can only be properly identified by a human being exercising good judgment. Not all police officers have good judgment, granted, but they are better suited to examining those millions of little factors than a machine that can’t ponder anything more than a number representing a vehicle’s speed.

Furthermore, people in the United States are guaranteed equal protection under the law. Somebody traveling 1 miles-per-hour over the speed limit is violating the law just as much as somebody traveling above DC’s undefined ‘threshold.’ By rigging the cameras to ticket some speeders and not others, the DC government gives drivers unequal protection and violates the Constitution.

Ultimately, speed cameras are a bad idea because they cannot be implemented fairly nor can they distinguish between safe and unsafe drivers. Red-light cameras, however, are a good idea because (when configured properly) they will never photograph a safe driver.

But what is most clear is that both the Virginia and DC governments have got the wrong idea—Washington is pushing ahead with a bad one while Virginia backs out of a good one.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.