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Red Light Cameras

OPB | Sept. 4, 2009 9 a.m. | Updated: Sept. 10, 2013 8:58 p.m.

Portland watcher Jack Bogdanski noticed the other day that the city has put out a bid for a new red light traffic camera system contract. In case you haven’t become acquainted with these systems, the basic idea is that a camera snaps your photo if you run a red light. If you’re a major cup-is-half-full person, one upshot is that one day you might find that you’ve received a candid photo in the mail. Of course that photo comes with a ticket — often for over $200.

Portland’s not alone. Medford, Newberg, and Salem already have them. And Tualatin is ready to join the club. But should the club be growing?

Blue Oregon’s Kari Chisolm wrote in 2007 that he loves red light cameras because they’re “egalitarian enforcement”:

If you run a red light that’s enforced by a camera, you’re going to get a ticket. The camera doesn’t care if you’re young, or old. It doesn’t care if you’re a shady-looking dude, or a hot blonde with big boobs. It doesn’t care if you’re a rich and powerful pillar of the community. It doesn’t care if you’re “driving while black.” And it doesn’t care how good your excuse is — and it isn’t affected by your skill in talking your way out of a ticket.

Of course some people are less sanguine. Red light cameras bring cries of a corporatized big brother. And some point out that rear-end accidents have increased (even if side-impact accidents are down). One blogger is even convinced that the lights with cameras are timed specifically to ensare more drivers. He did his own test:

My friend and I decided to time the traffic lights on the street by driving back and forth. At all intersections but the red light camera ones we counted “one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three” for the light to go from green to yellow and “one thousand one and one thousand two” for it to go from yellow to red. Then we came to the red light camera intersection and found that the light would change sporadically. We would count “one thousand one and one thousand two” and it would go form green to red, totally out of sync with the pattern on the rest of the street! Then once it turned form yellow to red it went so fast we could not even say “one thousand one!” It has to be intentional that the city has set the lights like this to trap motorists for the city to make money off the contraptions.

It turns out this isn’t completely far-fetched. Six cities have already been caught shortening their yellows for profit.

Have you been caught by a traffic camera? From your experience, do the cameras make you a safer driver — or just a jumpier one? And should a city get all the money from your traffic fine — or is it OK for the camera company to take a cut?

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