MSNBC published an interesting article on the growing backlash against red light cameras in this country.

The core issue I see in this debate is balancing automated enforcement against public trust, and I’ve got some suggestions for that… based on some experience.  What we are doing right now with automated red light camera enforcement is too simple and narrow-minded to be given the broad acceptance that governments are giving it.  These suggestions are on how to use the technology properly and fairly, and to reverse the damage to public trust which is causing the public backlash to gain such momentum.

I first was exposed to both red light cameras and speed enforcement cameras in Berlin, Germany, in the 1980’s while stationed there.  This was almost 10 years before any serious discussion of using them started in the United States.  While in Berlin, it was common to have a lunch room conversation occur with someone who received a citation in the mail from the German police with a picture from one of these devices.

The most common reaction to it was, “When did this happen, and where was I?  I don’t remember anything like this.”  This is my biggest problem with automated enforcement of red light cameras and speeding cameras.  By the time the citation arrives in the mail, so much time has elapsed since the incident that recalling the incident, let alone details, is hard for most people.

Additionally, it tends to engender a paranoia and distrust of public officials–instead of the intended behavior modification.  Imagine the difference between getting a ticket several days or weeks later in the mail, for an incident you barely remember, compared to a police officer stopping you on the spot and staring at you through those dark sunglasses asking, “Do you know why I stopped you?”  It’s possible you ran the light due to a momentary lapse of attention or something distracted you that did require immediate attention.  But it gets dealt with immediately, and personally with an authority.

As any parent will tell you, the closer you catch a child breaking a rule (both time wise and proximity), the more effective the scolding or other discipline will be.  But more importantly, you can also have a dialog with the child right away and find out if there was something going on you were not aware of, which was causing the behavior.  There might be a reason to not discipline the child because of something you were unaware of.  Let the child have his say, even if it does turn out to be somewhat ludicrous, and the child will accept (or comes to term with) the punishment much better.

Try this: put a camera up in your house, and leave the child a picture or video for them to watch several hours later of what they did, include what their punishment would be, and don’t be around for them to talk to you when they watch it.  The relationship with that child will immediately become very unhealthy.  The child will go out of his way to spend time outside the house and away from you.  Trust is gone, or if you are lucky… just seriously damaged.

Period spot checks (a real police officer) are a far better way to enforce traffic infractions, because the timeliness and the personal contact with the authority, even if the authority decides to issue you a ticket, maintains the public trust in an enforcement scenario.  There are three main problems that I have with this automated enforcement, which make me a strong opponent of the cameras and processes currently in use.  Address these, and I would change my mind.

#1: Get a better picture of the event, and a better prospective on what that picture does for enforcement

As it was in Berlin while I was stationed there, a red light camera usually has one view: from the rear.  It generally snaps a picture of the vehicle behind the limit line (that white line which you are not supposed to cross over while the light is red), and a second picture to capture the license plate number.  That view is particularly narrow: both snapshots are from the rear of the vehicle, and capture just the intersection and the vehicle.

One of the most unfair things about this view: since only the car and its license plate is visible, the ticket is issued to the vehicle’s owner… even if they were not driving the car.  If a police officer pulls a car over for running a red light and issues a citation, he issues it to the driver.

So change two things about this..

  • Make all photographic evidence of the event moving pictures (not still) so that 3-5 seconds prior to running the red light is recorded, and audio is included.
  • In addition to the rear view, record a view of the event that includes the front of the vehicle capable of capturing the drivers actions.  Include a 360 degree view of the insection, and that would be ideal.

As a motorcycle rider, I can tell you that I don’t just look for vehicles on the road. I pay attention to the driver’s head. It tells me the driver’s intentions: focused, engaged in conversation (phone or otherwise), checking the mirrors for objects to prepare for a lane change, enraged, singing along with the song on the radio, yelling at the kids in the mirror to be quiet or saying “we get there when we get there”, spooked by something on the side of the road, etc. It helps immeasurably in safe driving.

Yes, I can actually read these things from body language alone. They would be visible on the video from a front view as well.  And an infrared camera view could provide an adequate view of the driver at night. You see, red light cameras are really intended to catch one type of violation: the driver who sees the yellow light, knows the red light is coming, doesn’t care or consider that they have adequate distance to stop in time–and chooses to go through the intersection anyway. That’s the behavior that leads to some very serious and deadly accidents, which the automated enforcement is trying to curtail.

It’s the driver who, approaching the light as it turns yellow, doesn’t take their eyes off the light. In fact, the front end of the car might raise up a little as they apply the gas to quickly get through the intersection. You would see the body language on the tape to prove this intent: unwavering focus on the traffic light and the intersection, biting of the lip or clenching of the teeth, and maybe the utterance of a four-letter word.

This would be very clear on the video and easily determined as intent to run the light.

And what about those events that are not clearly intent to run the red light?  Well, police officers do have the option to issue a warning instead of a ticket.  What would you think if you received a letter of warning for running a red light in the mail.  Contained in it is a comment by the enforcement officer that he observed things in the video, indicating the event appeared unintentional, and requesting that the driver be more aware and careful in the future.  Would you continue to see the authority as being cold and harsh with technology?  I doubt it.

#2: Automatically set a court date to review the violation.

This is a step that is necessary right now, to restore the public trust. It basically means that an enforcement officer has reviewed the video, determined from all angles of the video that the intent indicated was to run the red light, and issued the citation. On the citation is a pre-scheduled court date with the time and location for the person receiving the citation to appear, but they are not required to appear if they choose not to challenge the citation.

Make it so that the person does not need to go through the trouble of scheduling a date. And there is an important part of this, at least in the first years of it. If the person shows up to challenge the citation, and loses, no penalty above the initial fine can be imposed for challenging the citation in court and losing.

By doing this, the court is actually encouraging the person to attend and review the video. The judge can also see it with the defendant, and hold a dialog. The judge becomes the oversight officer for the enforcement officer, as it should be, and the person being charged gets the opportunity to have face time with a real person in authority (since they didn’t have it directly with a police officer at the time). Some convictions will be naturally be overturned, but I am convinced that when people who just show up in court expecting to win worthless challenges see how strong the video evidence is, word will begin to spread that the automation is no longer narrowly focused on the back side of the car–and the enforcement officer issuing the citation had solid, overall evidence for it.

And after the first years, include a hyperlink directly in the citation where the person can go online to view all the video evidence supporting the citation. Then, if they show up in court and still challenge the citation, imposing an additional fine for losing the challenge is easily justified.

This step over time will help repair the damage to public trust that this camera-enforced method is causing.  Imagine, in the scenario with your child, that you left the video for them to watch with a note that said, “Because of what you did here, your punishment is {..fill in the blank..}.  However, I will be at home at 6:00PM.  If you don’t understand or disagree with the punishment, come talk to me.”  The reaction is a very different, because you’ve opened the door to personal contact in case they have something to tell you that changes your interpretation of what you saw.”

#3: Set firm standards for traffic light timing where red light cameras are installed.

This step is an anti-corruption step.  One of the things I observed and had confirmed in occasional discussions with my German friends who drove in Berlin, was the fact that certain lights at busy intersections had a very short duration for the yellow light during rush hour.  Those same traffic lights would have longer duration for the yellow light at non-peak hours.  It was never officially timed, but everyone observed it and knew it.  And those traffic lights had red light cameras installed.

This is a potential exploit of the automated red traffic light enforcement, which is just ugly.  Because of the money these automated enforcement devices can potentially generate, make no mistake that this is a temptation that exists for governmental organizations.  And the public perception of citations being issued unconditionally just to raise revenue is a HUGH contributor to the backlash against the devices.

So as part of the system, make sure the recording displays a time stamp down to 1/100th of  a second.  If the citation is challenged in court, an automatic part of the review is to check the duration of the yellow light against a chart for minimum duration times for the posted speed limit.  If the minimum duration is violated, the citation is automatically dismissed.

In conclusion…

I make these suggestions not only as someone who has had a citation in the past from these devices, but also as a software developer who has always had concerns about proper use of technology–especially in legal contexts.

I also make them from the perspective of a person who lived in West Berlin during the Cold War, and visited East Berlin where secret police and informers in crowds, as well as cameras on roof tops, were everywhere–for the purpose of controlling the masses for state security.  I am now living back in the United States, my home, the land of the free, which claims to do things better than that.

So my challenge to the government authorities here is this: if you use technology for enforcement, prove that principle in your enforcement process.

(03/20/2013) A follow up: As of the time of this posting, Los Angeles was weighing the decision to end the contract for its red light cameras. In the summer of 2012, they did not renew the contract for them. Who’s mostly to thank? A set of court judges who refused to enforce the citations. Bravo gentlemen and gentlewomen! We can only hope the rest of the country will follow your lead. Read the article here.