There's More To That Red Light Camera Than A Ticket

Recently I was involved in a spirited debate about the validity of red light cameras here in Albuquerque. Many involved were coming from the perspective of road safety and their personal experiences on the roads of Albuquerque. Some stated that they wished they were on every corner, others stated that their experience with an expensive ticket had taught them to drive more carefully... or at least drive more carefully when going through an intersection with a camera. What I thought was being missed during this exchange, however, was the basic question, should basic local government services, like the enforcement of our traffic laws, be contracted out to private companies?

The usual argument for 'contracting out' services is that a private company can be more efficient with their labor force, have more legal leeway in their practice, and the ability to implement measures without political repercussions. The end result is supposed to be a cost saving benefit to the tax-payers. In this case the cops get freed up to do some more quality police work and our streets become safer.

A recent study by The Progressive States Network entitled Privatizing in the Dark:The Pitfalls of Privatization & Why Bud... illustrates that these "public-private partnerships" rarely turn out to be the money-savers that were sold to the public. When our local government turns over local services to a private company it usually entails a loss of general oversight and accountability and a lack of accounting mechanisms to see if the public is actually saving money.

If we take a look at some local and regional government outsourcing examples, it becomes evident that there is generally a problem. Recently we witnessed a problematic Super Tuesday. The high number of provisional ballots led to a number of questions, many of which focused on the integrity of the registered Democrat voter role for the state of New Mexico. What we learned was that due to the outsourcing of our election hardware and software to the private company ES&S, the Secretary of State needed to be granted permission to access the NM voter role before sending it off to the Democratic Party to use in the caucus. Many have speculated about what may or may not have happened to this voter role after it had been released that may have corrupted the data. All conversations in the media have just taken as fact that the data that came from the private company ES&S was valid. The public cannot be sure that the information provided on the voter role was valid. The Secretary of State could audit the machines, but the Secretary of State was put into office with money contributed by ES&S so a flagrant conflict of interest arises.

Another example is the privatization of NM prisons. NM has the highest rate in the country of its incarcerated housed in private prisons. There has been a rise in murders, rapes, and disastrous working conditions since our state began privatization. Many of the individuals of such crimes are held accountable but the system itself is not subject to the oversight of the state and its citizens. When housing inmates becomes a business that we can't regulate, we're setting ourselves up for major problems.

When we examine what's at stake concerning privatization, questions arise as to the soundness of outsourcing everything that can be outsourced. Our children are tested using private testing measures, we use electricity that is priced and regulated by a private company, water rights are being purchased at an alarming rate by private interests. Where do we as citizens draw the line? Is not government the very entity we pay taxes to in order to perform these services? If government is to outsource its duty it has towards its citizens, what recourse are we to have when something goes wrong?

The article listed above calls for Privatization Transparency Legislation. This would call for enacting laws that require companies to prove that they are actually saving the tax-payers money. Also, budgetary measures would need to be taken to show the amount of government services that are privatized. This information would be required to be readily available to the public online. Finally, there should be legislation put in place which bans "pay to play" contributions meaning that companies bidding on service contracts are not allowed to contribute to the campaigns of government officials.

It would be naive to think that politicians solely have the tax-payers money in mind when they out source many these government services. There are political agendas aimed at altering the relationship between government and citizen and privatization is a natural means to that end.

I would suggest that the debates over red-light cameras and their validity continue and with even more vigor. For what's at stake is not solely inconvenience of more traffic tickets. What's at stake is our fundamental access to the channels of oversight and accountability for the services we are entitled to, for which we pay for and indeed the reason why local governments were formed in the first place.

-Thanks to Laura Paskus for the article cited.

Views: 20

Comment by statler and waldorf on February 25, 2008 at 7:40am
Smart, well-thought-out post, Bleve. I agree with a lot of what you have to say about privatization of taxpayer-funded services.

Still, though, I'd much rather have a robot send me a ticket in the mail for a traffic infraction than have to deal with an underpaid, creepy and armed former bullying victim sniffing around my car.
Comment by bleve on February 25, 2008 at 8:59am
You're right Claire... I guess I clumsily meant that the very nature of the operation becomes a conflict of interest once there has been a contribution.
Comment by Khal Spencer on February 25, 2008 at 10:09am
The Privatization Transparency Legislation needs to do far more than look at relative cost of the services, but whether the services are needed and whether the private company which provides them can do so while not corrupting the process at the expense of the public institution it is working to serve.

For example, I worry when we make prisons into for-profits, since we are then turning over fellow citizens to a profit-oriented company whose first motive is make money and among its lesser motives is rehabilitation. Indeed, one could argue that a private prison company would make a bigger profit by ensuring a steady source of convicts. The purpose of prisons is not to make money for someone, but to safeguard the public and hopefully rehabilitate the inmate.

Similar arguments have been made against turning over speed cameras to a for-profit enterprise. The public, long since used to being cynical towards its government, rightfully wants to know that the monitoring and ticketing system is not being gerrymandered to produce money rather than safety. I think it is incumbant on the government to provide evidence to the contrary.

I think red light cameras are a great idea, since red light runners are basically recklessly endangering the lives of fellow citizens and to provide police at all these intersections is prohibitively expensive. But the implementation of this program has to be done in a way that is fully transparent and cynicism-proof, at least cynicism proof to the safe driver.
Comment by bleve on February 25, 2008 at 10:24am
Khal, I agree completely that when a profit margin is added to the equation, it turns into a different animal that is prone to corruption. I should of touched on that more.

I'm not in favor of the red light cameras myself for the very reasons you state in regards to the prison example. I don't think they were implemented with the public's safety as its motive, nor is there evidence of any scale that would suggest they're are as effective as they claim. These cameras would have been implemented if Abq had the safest intersections in the nation... its a trend across the country.
Comment by Khal Spencer on February 25, 2008 at 10:35am
Bleve, I think we need to look at good studies of effectiveness before concluding whether the program is intrinsically useful or not.

Like you, I am suspicous of privatization of enforcement. If Santa Fe, for example, were to implement a traffic camera program, I think the private entity should work under close supervision or in a subsidiary role with the police and traffic engineer, in order to ensure honesty. the private companies are building the cameras, but they should not be running these programs but instead providing the technical assistance to install and operate them.

Brief disclaimer. I have been involved with the Traffic Justice Project of the National Center for Bicycling and Walking ( ), so I obviously have my own concerns for public safety which, of course, have to be balanced with due process.

Here are a couple links on traffic cameras.

Red light cameras.

Speeding cameras.
Comment by bleve on February 25, 2008 at 11:04am
Thanks for the links. I agree, I think its practical that the technology come from an outside contractor, I think once they're implemented, however, the operation should be run by local government.

I'll read up on what you sent.
Comment by ridin on February 25, 2008 at 11:41am
So the Executive Summary of the DOT report linked finds that the largest economic benefits accrue to those sites which are most carefully chosen and supported by safety and awareness programs. (You also gotta remember the data in those studies are 10+ years old...)

There are certainly easy negatives to both options in the debate--government's ineptitude vs. private sector's rapacity. So given a climate of roads made dangerous by unlicensed and unskilled drivers, which means of implementation carries the most benefit to the taxpayer?

Also--nailguns. ;-) I am saddened not to see study results which include the use of nailguns.
Comment by bleve on February 25, 2008 at 11:51am
Good question but I would hope the consideration would encompass more than mere dollars. What's the price of accountability and recourse of action?
Comment by Khal Spencer on February 25, 2008 at 1:47pm
The economic benefits are calculated based on models of before and after hospitalization and property damage rates, not on the basis of tickets paid to the company. See the Conclusions in the FHWA report.
Comment by bleve on June 18, 2008 at 12:01pm
hmm... good take on red light cameras Kaatje.


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