Post #438: Red-light cameras, speed cameras

Posted on October 30, 2019

The Town of Vienna Transportation Safety Commission frequently gets requests from citizens to have the town install a red light camera or speed camera at some problematic location in Vienna.  These cameras would then be used to catch red-light runners and speeders, and presumably reduce both speeding and red-light-running.

At the 10/29/2019 meeting of the Transportation Safety Commission (TSC), a representative from the Town of Vienna police department summarized Virginia law regarding speed cameras and red light cameras.  And the short answer is no, the Town isn’t going to install speed cameras or red light cameras, for some very good reasons. 

Why we don’t have traffic law enforcement cameras

To cut to the chase, this wasn’t some argument about Big Brother and our surveillance society and so on.  You didn’t have to get to that level.  This boiled down to being either illegal or hugely inefficient to use traffic law enforcement cameras.

First, speed cameras are literally illegal in Virginia.  Commonwealth statute allows the use of speed cameras in exactly one situation, as described in this Washington Post article.  I’m not even going to repeat it, because it does not apply in Vienna.  So it’s literally not legal to use a speed camera here.

Second, red light cameras are impractical, inefficient, and mostly ineffective.  The Commonwealth imposes onerous restrictions on the use of red light cameras.  You can read the statute here.  Just off the top of my head, from last night’s meeting, I recall that the following rules apply.

  • Maximum of one camera per 10,000 residents.
  • The Town must prove that the intersection is unsafe, using traffic accident data.
  • The Town must prove that it has no other practical means to enforce the law at that intersection.
  • The Town must monitor that intersection and report monthly on the impact the camera has had.
  • It would be run by a private company, not by the Town.
  • Tickets result in a $50 fine and no points on the license.
  • Tickets are easily avoided simply by writing a letter stating that you were not driving the car at that time.  That practice becomes common once a red light camera is in place.
  • Cars have to enter the intersection at least 0.5 seconds after the light turns red (less stringent than in-person enforcement.)

There were others as well.

But the one that got me is that the system is not automated.  At least as it was implemented in Vienna some time past (long since removed), the system literally required a police officer to monitor the video output, in real time, and take a picture when he or she saw a violation.  The Town had to assign one officer, full time, to monitor the camera.  I assume that was a legal requirement, and would still hold today.

The upshot of the discussion was “forget about cameras”.  And for traffic enforcement, that’s pretty clearly right.

Not so fast

But maybe dismissing all use of cameras was a little too hasty.  Nobody even considered the use of cameras in ways that would not result in tickets being issued.

Ever since I attended the last TSC meeting and heard about problem of unsafe crosswalks on Kingsley and Tapawingo (Post #395), I’ve had a hard time forgetting about that.  It wasn’t just that the situation sounded awful, and that it involved kids walking to school.  It’s that a bicyclist being hit by a car, at Kingsley and Ware, didn’t seem to be enough to bring stepped-up police enforcement at that intersection.  The reaction wasn’t anything like “we’ll station somebody there for a while to see if we can calm traffic down”.  It was more like “we have to enforce the laws all over town and we’re spread pretty thin.”

I’m not even faulting the police for their response.  But it did leave me asking, what does it take to get stepped-up enforcement at some location in Vienna?  Is that simply out-of-the-question?  Or is there a better way to triage traffic enforcement in Vienna?

And it boils down to a mix of:

  • I wonder if you could shame people into not threatening children in crosswalks.
  • I wonder if you could prove to the Town that there is a serious problem at some particular location.
  • I wonder if you could make Town traffic enforcement more efficient.

The basic notion behind all of that is that I’d take a video camera, set myself up at one of these problem four-way stops, and unobtrusively film the morning rush hour.  Just sit there, in the public right-of-way (sidewalk), video the public right-of way (the road).  And then, later, work up a highlights tape of the worst offenders.

First, I’m pretty sure that’s legal.  That is, with a few exceptions (e.g., military installations), you have the right to take pictures or video of anything that goes on in the public space.  At least, these folks say so.  Heck, they go further, and say: “Taking photographs and videos of things that are plainly visible from public spaces is your constitutional right.”

So I’m pretty sure I could legally take a video of cars stopping (or failing to stop) at a four-way stop sign and crosswalk.  Whether or not a government entity could do that, I’m not so sure.  But as a private citizen, I’m sure I could take the film.

I’m also willing to bet that, as long as I don’t try to make money off of it, I’m free to show that film.  I’m not even sure I’d have to (e.g.) blur the license plate numbers, as is routinely done by entities who use street scenes for commercial purposes (e.g., Google Maps Street View).

For any one intersection, the idea here is that seeing is believing.  Maybe showing the Town that “highlights” tape — presumably, of cars ignoring the stop signs — would prompt some action.

But across all the high-traffic intersections, a systematic approach to filming them periodically could be a fairly cheap way to identify the ones that are problems.  The Town routinely hires consultants to do traffic counts on the streets.  Some of those are fairly intrusive, as I understand it, using cell phone data to track individual cars.  Doesn’t seem that much of a step up to add video, perhaps along with limitation on how long that video may be retained.  And then have a person fast-forward through the tape and count violations per hour.

Equipment is cheap.  Labor hours are not.  Seems like a cheap way to identify problem areas.  But maybe privacy concerns would bar a government entity from doing that.

So that gets me back to where I started.  Maybe citizens who have a particular traffic enforcement issue should start thinking about video.  It’s one thing to claim that you have a problem.  It might be another thing entirely to roll the tape and show a video of the problem.