The Shame of Rochester’s Red Light District

Red light camera (by Derek Jensen)

It’s been 6 months now since Rochester, NY deployed its new red light camera system in an effort to keep us safe.  That is, if you are using the word safe in the same way that you might use the word “fruit” to describe a Pop-Tart.

As I’ve written previously, these systems are not remotely about safety.  That’s just the marketing spin.  In most cases, safety actually declines.  These systems are about generating revenue.

Rochester just revealed its statistics on the first half-year of operation, so let’s see how it’s going.  Police have issued 5,158 automated tickets for running red lights.  That’s a fair number of violators.  I wonder how the accident rates at those intersections compared with previous years?  Apparently, so does the city.  Executive Deputy Police Chief George Markert said,  “It will take some period of time to determine that.”

How can that possibly be?  If you install a system with the expressed purpose of increasing safety, don’t you plan to measure that expected result?  This is not advanced math.  There are doubtless statistics for historical accident rates at these intersections.  Compare those to the rates for the same period this past year.  Is A < B?  Perhaps I’m just cynical. but I’m pretty sure we’ll never see that data.

Okay, so what about the revenue part?  Are we at least raking in cash to the city coffers?  It turns out, not so much.  While the city has collected $141,045 in fines so far, that’s only half the amount that’s outstanding because over 50% of the tickets remain unpaid.  Nearly 1 in 4 tickets are in default or in collections, meaning the chances of ever getting paid are slim.

But hey, $141k isn’t pocket change.  That’s a good profit, right?  It turns out, not so much.  You see, the cameras were installed and are maintained by Arizona-based vendor Redflex Traffic Systems.  Over the same period, they have billed the city $145,164 for operating the system.  Fortunately, there is a clause in the city’s contract with Redflex saying they can’t be billed more than they take in.  So, all totaled, the city has seen a net cash influx of… let me work the arithmetic out here… carry the 1… ah, yes… $0.

On the other hand, they have managed to relocate $141k of money from Rochester to Arizona.  Even if all of the tickets had been paid in full, while they would be sitting on $140k profit, they still would be sending 50% of the money they raise to Arizona.  Doesn’t it seem there should be some tax or fee that could be enacted to raise a similar amount of money from area residents without requiring us to pay double that amount in order to subsidize business in another state?

In summary, it does appear my earlier assessment was wrong.  This venture isn’t about revenue for the city, it’s about profits for Redflex.   And it’s still not remotely about safety.  The city’s complicity in this program doesn’t make them opportunistic or greedy.  It makes them chumps.  There… feel better?