Home » Status Report » 2009 » Article
Status Report, Vol. 44, No. 1 | February 14, 2009 Subscribe

Courts hand down favorable red light camera rulings

Calling plaintiffs' argument a "dud," a federal appeals court in Illinois upheld as constitutional Chicago's use of red light cameras to nab signal violators. The January decision bolsters the legal case in support of automated enforcement systems.

"Support for red light cameras is solid," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research. "Courts consistently have upheld their use, and numerous studies have shown that cameras reduce red light violations as well as injury crashes at intersections. Surveys show a majority of Americans in favor of using red light cameras."

Still, the automated enforcement devices often are challenged in court. Naysayers argue that red light cameras — speed cameras, too — are unconstitutional. They violate privacy rights and are thinly veiled moneymaking schemes, the detractors say.

The Chicago case involved a Bloomingdale, Illinois, woman who got a $90 ticket in the mail for running a red light, even though someone else was driving her car at the time. Camera programs typically hold vehicle owners responsible for infractions, regardless of whether they were at the wheel, and courts repeatedly have affirmed this practice (see "In other highway safety news ...," August 26, 2003, and "Automated traffic enforcement is in use worldwide," May 4, 2002).

Courts in Illinois, California, and Tennessee hand down rulings that are favorable to camera programs

Lawyers in the Illinois case argued that the red light camera ordinance in Chicago is unconstitutional because it denies vehicle owners the right to due process. The plaintiffs contended that the city's red light ordinance was designed to generate revenue and doesn't deter traffic violators.

In its ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit said "no one has a fundamental right to run a red light or avoid being seen by a camera on a public street. The interest at stake is a $90 fine for a traffic infraction, and the Supreme Court has never held that a property interest so modest is a fundamental right."

Writing for the panel, Chief Judge Frank H. Easterbrook said a "system that simultaneously raises money and improves compliance with traffic laws has much to recommend it and cannot be called unconstitutionally whimsical." The court added, "If the case were at all complex, we might abstain ... but the City's enforcement apparatus is simple and the federal law straightforward."

Two other favorable decisions came down during mid-2008 from state appeals panels in California and Tennessee. The Fourth Appellate District of the California Court of Appeal said "red light photo enforcement is not wasteful or illegal." This was in June 2008 when the court refused to overturn lower decisions that had affirmed automated ticketing programs. A month later, the Tennessee Court of Appeals rejected a constitutional challenge to Knoxville's red light camera program. The California case is under review by the state's high court.

Red light running causes about 800 crash deaths per year, and about half of the people killed aren't the signal violators (see "Red light cameras in Philadelphia all but eliminate violations," Jan. 27, 2007). They're pedestrians and people in vehicles hit by the red light runners. An estimated 165,000 people are injured annually.

In the United States, more than 300 communities already use red light cameras to help prevent intersection crashes by deterring signal violators. Linked to traffic lights and sensors, the cameras photograph vehicles entering intersections after a light has turned red. The cameras record the date, time of day, time elapsed since the beginning of the red signal, vehicle speed, and license plate number. Tickets typically are mailed to vehicle owners.

©1996-2016, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Highway Loss Data Institute | www.iihs.org