Beware ticket cameras in travels outside state

Phil Berg
Special to The Detroit News

A friend told me his freshman son’s girlfriend just received a ticket near East Lansing for turning right on a red light in an intersection marked “no turn on red.” The fine was $180, which is more than my annual food budget when I was a freshman.

Still, I believe we have it easy in Michigan, primarily because the state does not use automated ticket cameras, as 23 other states do.

The lack of photo-ticket machines in Michigan makes me unaware of risks when I drive in other regions, particularly in Chicago. That city first installed red-light cameras in 2003, and in the decade following grossed $625 million in fines. The private company running the program until 2013 has since been fined $20 million this year for bribing local officials. Yet the fines from camera tickets continue to make the city an expensive place to drive unaware, with almost 400 automatic photo ticket machines generating about $45 million for the city annually.

To defend its stated safety-oriented motive, Chicago hired Northwestern University to study data from 85 intersections between 2010 and 2015. The study showed a 14 percent increase in rear-end accidents at intersections where red-light ticket cameras were located.

The study also stated: “Public perceptions of fairness diminish when otherwise well-meaning, law-abiding drivers are effectively caught in the dilemma zone.” The so-called “dilemma zone” is the split-second when the yellow turns red, and a motorist has to decide to brake or continue through the intersection. “The effect of the dilemma zone is evidenced by the significant reduction in violations when the yellow interval is 4 seconds compared to 3 seconds,” said the study.

Studies by the Texas Transportation Institute and other agencies have found that longer yellow-light times reduce both accidents and violations, without significantly affecting traffic flow. One extra second of yellow, it found, reduced collisions 40 percent. It also found most automated tickets are issued during the split-second “dilemma zone,” when accidents rarely happen. However, when Georgia introduced mandated lengthening of yellow times several years ago, it made the existing automated traffic cameras unprofitable, bankrupting the private company running the ticketing operation.

California is ripe with automated ticketing machines, although local voters have been successful at banning about half of the municipal deals with private companies who run the ticket operations. Oxnard was caught with illegally short yellow-light times this month, with a grand jury finding the city failed to increase yellow light times in two years since the increase was state-ordered. The city issued $2 million worth of red-light photo tickets in 2016.

In Ohio, the cities of Newburgh Heights and Linndale set up automated ticketing traps on I-77 and I-71, which have prompted one state representative to introduce bills last month to end revenue-collecting by small towns.

North Carolina ruled recently that profits from automated ticketing of motorists must go to the school system instead of the private ticket machine vendors, and so the municipalities have all but dropped automated ticket cameras.

In 2005, Virginia banned automated red-light photo tickets, but the legislature re-authorized their use last July.

Last week the NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis reported that car travel is at an all-time high of 3.1 trillion miles traveled in 2015, while fatalities have risen 4.6 percent per miles traveled over 2014. Five of the six states with the lowest fatality rates have all banned automated photo-ticketing devices.

So during summer travels outside of Michigan, my advice is to keep your eyes on your wallet as much as you keep them on the road.