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Speed cameras criticized, voted out in communities nationwide since 1991

Cars drive past the speed camera on South

Cars drive past the speed camera on South Oyster Bay Road across from Our Lady of Mercy School on Friday, Nov. 3, 2014, in Hicksville. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Fed-up motorists are increasingly challenging speed camera programs in municipalities across the country through lawsuits and voter referendums, forcing lawmakers to abandon the controversial technology or sharply curtail their use, according to an examination of camera programs.

On Nov. 4, residents of the Ohio cities of Cleveland and Maple Heights, and St. Charles, Missouri, and Sierra Vista, Arizona, voted to ban or limit the use of the cameras. They are among the 24 cities, including Anchorage, Alaska, and Cincinnati, that since 1991 have voted to end their speed camera programs, often by wide margins. Residents of nearly a dozen other cities have filed lawsuits to repeal their programs.

Nationwide, speed cameras are operating in 14 states and 138 communities near schools, parks and libraries, and on residential streets and highways.

"People are realizing these programs are inherently unfair," said John Bowman, a spokesman for the National Motorists Association, a Wisconsin-based group that opposes automated cameras and encourages drivers to challenge all traffic tickets. "It's photo enforcement run amok."

But Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an Arlington, Virginia, nonprofit focused on reducing traffic accidents and fatalities, said speed cameras have forced drivers to slow down.

"The cameras can help supplement law enforcement in keeping the public safe," McCartt said. "And, studies have shown there has been a net public safety benefit."

The increasing resistance to the cameras comes as Nassau County struggles with the rollout of its school zone speed camera program. Nassau's program has sparked protests from motorists, some of whom have received more than a dozen violations before realizing the cameras were in operation.

Motorists have launched petition drives for a referendum next year on repealing the program, while Democratic county lawmakers have introduced legislation to repeal the cameras.

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano announced last week that the county will dramatically scale back its program. Beginning Monday, cameras that have operated on school days from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. will be online only from 7 to 9 a.m., and from 2 to 4 p.m. Mangano cited residents' concerns and a significant drop in ticket revenues as motorists have become aware of the cameras -- an indication, he said, that motorists are driving more slowly in school zones.

Suffolk is planning to inaugurate its program next year.

Newsday's analysis shows that ballot initiatives against the cameras have been mostly successful as voters have turned out in high numbers at the polls, citing the program's revenue motivations and lack of safety improvements. Meanwhile, court challenges have largely failed, often because of technicalities or because the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue.


Ballot wins, court losses

In Cleveland, activists spent four years collecting signatures to get a referendum on the ballot banning speed cameras unless a police official personally issues the ticket. The measure passed Nov. 4, 78 percent to 22 percent.

City officials say the program succeeded in reducing speed in school zones and at high-volume city intersections. They cite a 40 percent drop in citations since the program's inauguration in 2008 as drivers altered their behavior.

"The camera program was never about revenue," said city spokesman Daniel Ball. "It was about safety."

Jason Sonenshein, who led the Cleveland repeal fight, said the program "lacked due process. Our main problem is that motorists were not able to confront their accusers."

Police officers with radar guns will be stationed at high-traffic locations that once had cameras, officials said.

Voters in nearby Maple Heights passed a charter amendment curtailing the cameras, 76 percent to 24 percent. In addition to requiring an officer to issue the ticket, the amendment bans the city from awarding a contract in which the vendor gets paid for each ticket issued -- a typical practice in the industry, including in Nassau, where its program manager gets 38 percent. The city subsequently ended the program.

In St. Charles County, Missouri, 73 percent of voters approved a ban on speed cameras and red light cameras. County Commissioner Joe Brazil, who supported the repeal, said the cameras "were never about safety. It was a money grab."

Len Pagano, mayor of St. Peters, a city in St. Charles County that had been using the cameras, said the future of the program should have been decided by elected officials, not voters.

In Sierra Vista, Arizona, a referendum ending the city's camera program passed 73 percent to 27 percent on Election Day. Local residents complained that the devices did not improve safety and were designed only to fill government coffers.

Public records show lawsuits have been filed by residents over speed cameras in Cedar Rapids and Sioux City, Iowa; Chicago; Toledo and New Miami, Ohio; St. Louis and Springfield, Missouri; New Orleans; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Washington, D.C.; and against a statewide program in Maryland.

Courts to date have largely sided with municipalities that backed the programs.

In 2012, the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, threw out a class action suit by motorists who argued that Montgomery County, Rockville, Gaithersburg and Chevy Chase Village should have been prohibited by state law from paying their camera operator based on the number of violations issued.

The court ruled that state law prohibits class-action lawsuits against a speed camera program, but declined to rule on the legality of the contract between the municipalities and the camera operator.


Arizona the camera pioneer

Arizona, home to American Traffic Solutions, Nassau's speed camera vendor, is the largest and earliest proponent of the cameras. Its program also spawned the first successful effort to kill the cameras when, in 1991, voters in Peoria, Arizona, banned the use of speed cameras.

In 2008, then-Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, facing a budget crunch, authorized dozens of speed cameras on highways. In its initial two years, the program -- the first of its kind in the nation -- generated 1.1 million tickets. But only about a third of motorists paid their fines and the program failed to meet budget expectations, according to news reports.

The program also sparked violence. Some residents damaged cameras with pickaxes, and in 2009, a passing motorist fatally shot a camera van operator who was sitting in a marked vehicle. The defendant was convicted and sentenced to 22 years in prison.

"The cameras were very controversial and did not have a lot of fans," said Bart Graves, a spokesman for Arizona's Department of Transportation.

In 2010, Gov. Jan Brewer shut down the highway cameras, arguing that the program was geared toward raising money rather than improving safety. State law still permits local cities to use the cameras within their own jurisdictions.


Policy back-and-forth

In Washington, a 115-page audit by the city's inspector general found inconsistent and "arbitrary" enforcement in issuing tickets. "The district often issues speeding tickets without conclusive identification of the violating vehicle," the audit in September found.

D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said the report was flawed and the camera program had widespread support. The District operates 177 speed cameras, including in school zones, and on residential streets, major arteries and highways.

Chicago rolled out speed cameras near city schools and parks in August 2013. The program has become one of the nation's largest, with 130 cameras operating across the city.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel projected cameras would generate $90 million in revenue to fund youth programs and balance the city's budget. But his 2015 budget proposal estimates cameras will generate only $40 million.

"The program's greater-than-anticipated effectiveness resulted in lower-than-expected violation rates," the city's budget proposal states.

Citizens to Abolish Red Light Cameras, a nonprofit that opposes Chicago's red light and speed cameras, said the programs do little to protect pedestrians and are a distraction from the city's real concerns.

"We don't have a problem with kids getting hit by speeding cars near parks and schools," said Mark Wallace, the group's executive director. "We have a problem with kids getting hit by bullets near parks and schools."

But Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy group in the New York metro area, said that in Nassau, at least, the camera program has boosted safety and should continue.

"They are clearly effective in capturing lawbreakers who recklessly and selfishly flout speed limits around the schools where they are placed," Vanterpool said.

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