Earlier this session, the MN Legislature tabled a bill to legalize the use of photo cop (red light cameras) in Minnesota. Perhaps I was the only one who was dismayed, but I hope they revive (and pass) it. Here's why.

There are four facts that bear on photo cop:

(a) running red lights is dangerous (both to body and property);
(b) people will run red lights (and they are with increasing frequency);
(c) there will never be enough police to monitor red lights; and
(d) photo cop will monitor and identify those running red lights for appropriate fines and, thus, deter others from ignoring the law.

I could stop there and go right to the argument that the legislature should pass a proper photo cop bill. But I want to expand on some of the points and also address some of the (outlandish) counter-arguments.

Safety: Is there anyone who seriously doubts that running red lights is dangerous, both to the driver doing it and the unfortunate other drivers around them? Real world stats say otherwise: every year in the U.S., driver failure to obey traffic signals results in approximately 260,000 accidents, 200,000 injuries and 1000 deaths. Of the 1,000 deaths, roughly half of those are suffered by pedestrians, bicyclists and non-driver vehicle occupants. Running a red light is like playing with a loaded gun. Good luck with that. Photo cop cameras act as a deterrent to people who otherwise would disregard a manifest human safety risk. If photo cop saved 50 lives a year, that would be sufficient.

It's the law: Minnesota Statute sec. 169.06, subd. 4 states that "the driver of any vehicle shall obey the instructions of any official traffic-control device applicable thereto." It's that simple. If you run a red light, you've broken the law. And it's not like getting a parking ticket. You've chosen to create a safety hazard for yourself and other drivers (and pedestrians, bikers etc...) around you. See above. If private pilots made a maneuver even remotely like running red lights (or tailgating, or excessive speeds in proximity to ground personnel or other aircraft), they would be grounded and suspended and could have their license revoked altogether.

What about heavy equipment operators? They're subject to random drug testing, security cameras, regular safety training and equipment inspection etc... Wanton disregard for safety regs would result in suspension/termination of employment. Yes, but that equipment is heavy and dangerous. An SUV with a mass of 4,000 lbs traveling at 50 mph is: a large metal box with enough crushing power to match industrial equipment.

Just rewards: If you're going to ignore safety restrictions on vehicles, you need to pay a fine. The photo cop captures license plates of vehicles traveling illegally through a red light. You then get a ticket for creating a safety hazard. If you weren't driving the vehicle at the time, you may inform the court. The ticket can then be dropped. Of course, you let someone operate your vehicle in an unsafe manner. Where is the moral objection in at least hauling you in to account for the safety hazard? Wouldn't you want to know your car had been driven in an unsafe manner and by whom? I sure would, especially if it's one of my children.

Public crimes aren't private: I read that some were concerned about privacy and did not want their license plates photographed - like it's a civil rights issue. Of course they don't. If I was regularly committing tax fraud, I wouldn't want the IRS to be able to inquire into my finances. Photo cop only snaps photos of apparent violators. Then police review to verify the violation. No violation, no fine. There's no privacy right when you're committing a crime in open view around many other drivers, pedestrians etc..(courts agree). Are you going to complain about the store cameras after you've shoplifted? And what about the civil rights of the family in the vehicle you just plowed into? States with more debate over the role of government have photo cop, including Texas (my home state). The civil rights argument falls apart.

Enough police: Drive around a city. How many intersections are routinely monitored by police? There aren't enough to prevent the violations, and they've got more substantial violations to monitor and investigate (robberies, crimes of violence etc...). That doesn't mean the traffic signal violations aren't a public hazard. Strangely, one of the major MN police officer associations came out against the measure on the basis the cameras were unpopular, and the public would get frustrated with the police for having to enforce. I'm pretty sure that's not a good way to make policy decisions.

It's a revenue scam: Some argue that the photo cop will just be used by the cities, etc... to make money. You could make the same argument about any ordinance violation where a fine is paid. Are there citizens protesting at city hall about parking fines, which don't usually involve any safety risk? Why would they protest a tool that will reduce a highly visible and unsafe moving violation? It's not unfair to make those imposing the safety risk pay for misuse of their vehicle.

Common sense: Photo cop is a cost-effective way to reduce red light violations that indisputably impose unnecessary risk of injury to persons (like children, pedestrians, other drivers) and property. The Legislature should revive the proposed law that will let Minnesota join the 26+ other states that have photo cop.

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MN Innovation Update - fall 2012