NEW ORLEANS -  The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana wanted to testify today against the Jefferson Parish Council red light scheme to ticket drivers for supposed violations, but couldn't get on the agenda.  We would have told them that such schemes might be illegal under state law, while certainly being unfair to vehicle owners and making bad policy, to boot.

"Persons in Jefferson Parish should shudder at the thought of a future filled with computerized cameras monitoring and evaluating their behavior everywhere they go," according to Joe Cook, Executive Director, ACLU of Louisiana.  "We must not allow politicians and bureaucrats to use machines to control our lives, especially when tax revenue is the goal, and it is unlikely such surveillance will make us safer."

The state legislature has repeatedly refused to give Orleans Parish authority to operate red light cameras.  Legislators who favored these schemes recognized that they were currently prohibited under two sections of state law, and that these statutes would have to be amended if "red light cameras" were to be installed.  Courts in California, Ohio and Minnesota have struck down similar local ordinances to the one being proposed in Jefferson Parish.  In California, the court found that the municipality could not delegate its regulation of traffic signals to a non-government entity (the camera company).  In Ohio and Minnesota, courts found that the cameras violate due process protections, and that the locality was not authorized to enact laws that are inconsistent with the state's traffic laws.

Jefferson Parish cannot avoid the fundamental due process issue by making the offense a civil matter.  It is still substantially similar to violations under criminal law, which require greater protection for the accused.  When an officer writes a citation, the motorist may contest the matter in court and face the accuser, but technology takes away that right.  Furthermore, the cameras raise other fairness questions, since vehicle owners, not drivers get the tickets, and vehicles with no plates, obscured plates, or paper plates behind tinted rear windows will likely escape tickets.  At the same time, a motorist who has to run a red light to get out of the way of an ambulance will likely get a ticket.

In 2005, a study found that injury and fatal crashes had increased 81 percent after red-light cameras had been installed in the District of Columbia.  A 2004 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Transportation reached similar conclusions after studying more than 300 intersections over a five-year period.  It seems people trying to avoid camera tickets often get rear-ended when they slam on their brakes.

While the safety record of red-light cameras is generally weak, there can be little doubt that traffic cameras are great at channeling money from taxpayers to both private camera companies and the government. In Howard County, Md., red light and speed cameras in the first five years of operation brought in more than $9 million, from which the camera company received more than $3 million. 

So what truly motivates cities to maintain these camera machines? Despite what they claim, it appears to be money. Even in cities where it has been demonstrated that red-light cameras have increased accidents, officials have actually increased their use. 

Further evidence that money drives these "revenue traps" is found in the failure of local governments to utilize a proven and affordable safety alternative: increasing the duration of yellow lights a couple of seconds.  Numerous studies show that doing so can cut accidents and citations by more than half.  But few cities seem interested in this simple safety measure, because increasing the duration of yellow lights would actually reduce the flow of traffic-related revenues to city coffers.