The Minnesota Supreme Court hears arguments in a challenge to red-light traffic cameras. The ACLU says cameras installed in Minneapolis violate motorists' constitutional rights. But research reveals that the cameras do a good job of preventing people from running red lights.
When cameras are installed, the number of people running red lights drops by up to 96 percent. And the number of cities that use the cameras is growing: 10 years ago, only two cities had them. Now, more than 250 do.
The federal government says drivers who run red lights kill more than 800 people and injure 170,000 every year.
In one recent study, Richard Redding, a senior engineer with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, found that cameras designed to snare drivers running red lights could prevent many accidents. Redding measured the impact of cameras at several intersections in Philadelphia over a year.
"The average number of red-light runners," Redding says, "went from about 75 a day down to 4."
He says that those numbers make a strong case for communities that want to install red-light cameras. The tools save lives, he says, with little downside.
The downside occurs when a ticket arrives in the mail with your name on it. It happened to Giff Nickol. He says he was driving fast on wet pavement in Baltimore when the traffic light turned from green to amber.
Nickol decided to go through the intersection, but the light turned red, and he got a ticket citing photographic evidence at the intersection. Nickol fought it, and won.
"This is not about insuring traffic safety," Nickol says, "it's about raising revenue."
He says his ticket was unfair because the amber light was too short. And he suspects this might have even been intentional.
"They don't make money unless people break the law," he says.
Nickol and others also worry about privacy. Howard Bass, a volunteer attorney for the ACLU, says the cameras open the door to what he calls "surveillance creep."
"Eventually, we're going to find ourselves living in a 1984 Orwellian world, where Big Brother knows everything that everyone's doing at every moment," Bass says.
Bass has achieved something unusual: He sued, and got the cameras in the city of Minneapolis turned off. He argued that the cameras violate motorists' civil rights.
"The ordinances presume that the owners are guilty of the driving conduct [and] require the owners to prove their innocence," Bass says, "rather than [require] the city to prove their guilt."
And, in Minneapolis, unlike many other cities, people caught by cameras could lose their license. That's one reason Bass' challenge has succeeded where others have failed. Another reason is that Minnesota hasn't changed its state laws to authorize camera surveillance.
Minneapolis law-enforcement officials want the cameras turned back on. In eight months, the city issued 26,000 tickets to motorists and got more than a million dollars in revenue.
Lt. Greg Reinhardt, a spokesman for the Minneapolis Police Department, acknowledges that the cameras produce revenue. But, he says, "even if this program did not make a nickel, it still would be the right thing to do."
Reinhardt says the cameras made it a whole lot easier to enforce the law.
"I had one officer issuing more tickets than 100 officers could issue," he says.
And more importantly, Reinhardt says, the cameras cut the number of crashes by one-third.
Regardless of what happens in the Minnesota Supreme Court, the state's legislature may have the last word. It could join the nine other states that have made red-light camera surveillance legal.