Weekly Citation Per Camera, Averaged by Month
Weekly Citation Per Camera, Averaged by Month

Earlier this week Senator Kastama (D-Puyallup) proposed a new bill (SB 6410) which if passed would slash the maximum allowable fine a city can level with automated traffic safety cameras.

The cameras have reduced red light running by 59.4% at 4 test intersections in Seattle and have proven to be modestly effective in a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) study. It is important to note that while the FHWA study shows that automated traffic safety cameras increase the occurrence of rear-end accidents, this has not occurred in Seattle.  Therefore, the safety benefits in Seattle’s context are most likely greater than the report indicates (because improved safety from a reduction of right-angle collisions are often partially offset by an increase in rear-end collisions). Seattle’s low arterial speed limit probably contributes to this anomaly.

Senator Kastama
Senator Kastama

The bill would change the following sentence from:

…the amount of the fine issued for an infraction generated through the use of an automated traffic safety camera shall not exceed the amount of a fine issued for other parking infractions within the jurisdiction.


…the amount of the fine issued for an infraction generated through the use of an automated traffic safety camera shall not exceed the average amount of ((a)) fines issued for other parking infractions within the jurisdiction.

…more after the jump

Currently the Seattle Police Department (SPD) issues fines of $124 for red light violations caught with a safety camera. I spoke to Mike Quinn who is director of the Traffic Safety Camera Project. He said that depending on one’s reading of the bill (average price of parking ticket possible or average  price of parking tickets actually issued over some period of time) this bill would result in red light running fines of around $42 dollars. If the second interpretation is used it would be slightly higher but he couldn’t say exactly how much (FYI here is the SMC “Bail Table”).

Put simply, SB 6410 would cut fines from $124 to ~$42, a two-thirds decrease. By comparison, speeding tickets in school zones are $189, or 4.5 times higher than the maximum fine possible with Sen. Kastama’s proposed legislation. To me, this represents a disconnect between actual risk and penalty. The Senator’s rationale for his legislation was presented in the press release below:

“The traffic cameras were originally passed in the interest of public safety, but now they’re viewed as revenue generators,” the Puyallup Democrat said. “Local governments are levying fines far higher than anyone in the Legislature intended.”

In approving the use of automated traffic cameras in speed zones, the Legislature authorized governments to set fines equivalent to those for routine parking violations. But instead of mirroring typical parking fines, governments chose the costliest parking fines on the books — those for parking in handicapped zones. It’s a fine that typically runs into three figures.

“There’s a public official in Seattle who flat out calls these things ‘revenue generators’ and wants the city to install 70 more,” Kastama said. “It’s clear that the focus has shifted from public safety to revenue. This is not what the Legislature intended and it’s not what the public wants.”

In fact, handicapped parking violations are a $250 fine, and any money the city receives can be referred to as a “revenue source” or “revenue generator”. Moreover I don’t see how reducing the cost of fines will increase safety of the traveling public. Success of laws can be judged by their swiftness of application, certainty, and severity of penalty imposed. Reduce any one of these factors (in this case severity of penalty) and the law becomes weaker. Strengthen any one, or better yet all three, but to a lesser degree, and the law becomes stronger. Senator Kastama’s bill does the exact opposite of what he says he wants.

Rather than focusing on reducing fines, which will only increase the number of violations, it seems that other changes to the legislation could do more to improve public safety. For example, changing the legislation so that all automated traffic safety camera fines are treated as tickets and therefore placed on a driver’s permanent record would increase the severity of penalty imposed by impacting violators’ long-term insurance rates.   Admittedly, this would require a significant change to the legislation, because currently the owner of the car is fined, not the driver who broke the law.  However, let’s not forget that running a red light is, in most situations, more dangerous than speeding, and the distinction that somehow because enforcement is done automatically we can’t treat it as such is wrong.

Furthermore, ensuring that revenue from fines are directed not to the general fund, but used for traffic safety purposes (more police enforcement, public safety campaigns, new signals at high-risk locations, pedestrian safety improvements, etc.) would be much more productive and certainly do more to improve safety than Senators Kastama’s bill.  Finally, increasing the number of locations covered (especially high risk locations) as well as mobile enforcement cameras would increase the certainty of penalty.

So while the Senator Kastama’s stated intention is to improve safety of the traveling public, and everyone can certainly agree that should be the goal, his bill would do little to actually achieve that goal while undermining automated traffic safety camera systems state-wide.

50 Replies to “Senator Kastama vs. Traffic Safety Cameras”

  1. Rather than focusing on reducing fines, which will only increase the number of violations

    Will it? Are people weighing the costs as they are running the light? It’s worth it for $50 but not at $125? In addition, how many of the infractions are actually people turning right on red?

    1. Yes because people already know it is illegal and they still do it. If something is illegal you don’t do it right? Well not in this case… until you fine them for it. That is why the price is important.

    2. This is about a risk proposition not logical decision making. If that was the case they wouldn’t run the light. People play the lottery of the reason. The very small possibility of a very large reward outweigh the cost of a lotto ticket. Some thing applies here.

  2. “Seattle’s low arterial speed limit”

    Is it really slower, than where? People say Washington state has particularly low speed limits in the rural areas. That many rural roads are 35mph in Washington where they could be 45 or 55. But the only speed limit in Seattle that seems unusually low is the 30mph section of Aurora (80th-145th?, 80th-205th?)

    The Eastside seems to have is share of excessively slow roads such as 84th in Medina and 148th in Bellevue. The streets seem plenty wide enough to accommodate higher speeds.

    What Pugetopolis doesn’t have is six-lane boulevards everywhere, like Dallas and Silicon Valley which seem to have them every mile. Although I heard they were proposed for Seattle in the 50s but rejected.

    The strangest situation I’ve seen is San Marcos in San Diego county. The arterials are 55mph! You just drive off your residential street and it’s freeway speed to the store or office park. I’ve always wondered how they managed it, to get the density just low enough that there’s not accidents everywhere.

    1. Mike,
      Are you the one that is going 30 on Aurora? LOL

      From south to north, the speed limit is 40 until just about the pedestrian crosswalk at Green Lake.

      It is then 30 mph to 85th. From 85th to the cemetery it is 35 mph. From about 115th north to 205th, it returns to 40 mph. In Snohomish County, it goes to 45 mph until north Lynnwood (about 168th St), then increases to 50 mph until you get to Everett.

  3. People turning right on red are still required to stop before they do it. Why should they get off without a ticket if they fail to stop?

    People turning right on red routinely fail to yield to pedestrians and bicyclists on their right — when you’re turning right, you’re looking left, for conflicting motor vehicle traffic.

    The system doesn’t issue a ticket every time the camera goes off. Every citation includes both photo and video recording of the incident, footage that is reviewed by a local police officer before a citation is issued.

    If there’s an error, if the motorist did come to a complete stop before turning right on red, the motorist receives a link to the photo and video, they have the evidence to prove the citation was an error.

    Most of the time, when people get a ticket after making a right on red, they review the video and discover that they really didn’t stop. This is such a pervasive violation that many people aren’t even aware they’re breaking the law on a regular basis.

  4. I don’t think the Senator is really interested in safety, and probably has general objections to traffic cameras. And might not mind cutting into Seattle’s revenue streams – I’m fairly sure Puyallup doesn’t have many of these things.

    Actually, when I read about stories like this I get annoyed about our particular form of government. It’s just so strange that people from small towns go to work in a small city to make laws affecting large cities. The state Senate loves to remind us that all of Seattle’s legal power is granted (like a gift) from the state. Considering how different our region’s interests are from those of the rest of the state, I think it’s far past time for us to secede.

    Anyway, I’m not sure of the right ticket price of these things and I’m ok with Seattle starting out at a low price and going up if ticket rates go up. But that should be Seattle’s call, not Puyallup’s.

    1. Maybe the senator has a more general concern about privacy, cameras and traffic monitoring, or about municipalities monetizing every aspect of daily life, and not a specific grudge against Seattle. Many municipalities are expanding their stoplight camera programs not because of safety concerns, but because they’re finding it to be a lucrative new revenue stream.

      1. And what, pray tell, is wrong with cities making money off people endangering others? I’d go for $1000 fine. I HATE those a**#$%s who run red lights!

      2. I think the evidence is pretty clear that, in Seattle at least, the cameras are having a positive impact. Kastama doesn’t dispute the positive – he seems to want to argue financial hardship on the part of the motorist who gets the citation.

    2. Puyallup has a LOT of cameras. And they have problems.

      First off, i find major concearn with the basic programs in effect in this state. First off, all the cameras are leased to the municipality or county. The lease does include maintance and service, however its based on tickets issued. At one point it was a percentage of each ticket issued up to a set amount would be collected for lease/service. Basecally, you have private companys installing these things for corporate finincial gain. Also since the equipment is owned/operated by a private concearn, you cannot easily do a FOIA to find out how the equipment is configured or used. The ones in puyallup often go off when a vehicle has either legally stopped at an intersection, or simply for no reason at all. No crime has been committed so why is the device treating me as a criminal?

      Secondly, The apparatus do not take conditions into the equasion. Where and officer might not ticket you in the event of slick roads, tailgaters, or whatnot, the camera always gets you and you always get a ticket. While a peace officer reviews both still and video footage its hard for them to take other things into account when making the call to issue a citation or not, and furthermore i think there is probally pressue for them to issue a ticket.

      And Finally, as i understand it a lot of the cameras do not catch “red light runners” persay, they catch people making california stops, or right turns without stops, yes both illegal, however…

      1. They definitely catch red light runners, someone in my family got a ticket for it. I don’t really understand your other points.

      2. Wait, there are conditions where it’s OK to drive dangerously and run red lights? I missed that part of drivers’ ed.

      3. im not saying its OK to run a red light, however presume you ar driving a large bus or truck, you might not always want to slam on the brake to stop at a light… same goes for if you have someone tailgating you. i realize their insurance if they had any would pay for the damages but do you really want to go there?

      4. You can always comes up with a “but image this situation..” Good laws create systems to deal with these situations while ensuring that the integrity of the law is maintained.

      5. Oh–so it’s okay to run a red light if you’re in a large bus or truck, and going too fast or not paying attention enough to anticipate the light change?

      6. I suspect some of our Metro drivers would say there are times when it makes more sense to run the light than to slam on the brakes, yes.

      7. The Senator’s legislation does nothing to modify how the companies that operate these cameras are reimbursed for their work.

  5. The cameras don’t identify the driver.

    It’s easy enough to automate license plate identification, but the technology just isn’t there (not to mention affordable) for facial recognition on grainy video footage taken through windshields.

    Unless you want to have a large staff of police officers doing manual comparisons against driver’s license photos, how are you going to tie the ticket to a driver instead of a car? And how are you going to make the identification reliable enough to stand up in court?

    1. The cameras don’t attempt to identify the driver, just as a parking ticket doesn’t attempt to identify who parked it there. The basic principle is that if you own the vehicle, you’re responsible for it except for a few circumstances, and there are procedures for demonstrating you qualify for those circumstances.

  6. don’t they mean the number of California stops has been reduced? Or people that try to sneak through the intersection just after it turns red is reduced?

    The worst accidents are usually the ones that people don’t see the light at all and blow through it t-boning someone… which of course these cameras do nothing for.

    1. No because these cameras are only installed on arterials and at intersections that have signals.

  7. I know it’s a political non-starter here, but I envy Switzerland’s policy of making some traffic fines proportional to income.

  8. Sen. Kastama’s comments can be taken at face value. It’s true that the legislative intent, of the original bill authorizing red-light photo cameras, was that citations not exceed the price of a parking ticket, and the parking ticket they had in mind was the usual $35 overtime ticket we get when we don’t pay the meter enough.

    But cities like Seattle found the “gotcha” by finding a parking violation up in the three figures, and due to the Legislature’s sloppy bill-writing, they were able to implement the much higher fee.

    Sen. Kastama is just trying to restore the original Legislative intent.

    Personally I object to automated law enforcement. I’d rather see a few more traffic police out on the streets enforcing ALL the traffic laws EVERYWHERE, not just red light violations at a few locations. Yes, such law enforcers are expensive, but the don’t have to write very many citations every day to “pay for themselves”; God knows there are enough violators out there to keep them more than busy — if traffic safety were a high City priority.

    1. “Personally I object to automated law enforcement” I agree!
      Not to sound like a knee-jerk right wing nut job, but I am very uncomfortable about computer software dictating my behavior patterns.
      Traffic cam technology could just as easily be adapted to any number of illegal or rule violation activities. J-walking fines with face recognition software, dozing off at work with retinal scanners facing your keyboard, insurance company rates based on your on-board vehicle chips data record, and who know what else.
      I consider myself a law abiding citizen and haven’t had a ticket in over 25 years. But, given enough cameras, I could look like John Dillinger too.

      1. Well, if you’re robbing banks then I’m even more in favor of more cameras. It always seems to come down to, if you’ve got nothing to hide then you have no objection to cameras in public spaces.

    2. From the report I linked to

      It also is important to look at alternative means of enforcement. Even if the City were to increase the number of traffic and motorcycle officers devoted to enforcement of traffic laws, it would not be possible for officers to provide the 24/7 vigilance and enforcement of traffic laws that is possible with cameras. Each additional motorcycle officer in 2008 would cost approximately $121,000 a year, including equipment. Given that it would take six officers to provide 24/7 coverage at a single intersection over the course of a year, cameras are remarkably cost effective.

      This is why you can’t just add a few more cops and get the same results.

      1. We shouldn’t want the “same results” as a traffic camera, Adam. Reread my post. We need more enforcement everywhere, not just a few (or even many) red lights. I still ask, how many tickets would an officer have to write in order to “pay” for him or herself; that $121,000 that you allege? That figure works out to about $500 per workday, which I think is an achievable number.

  9. I’m not a big fan of supporting the following vicious circle:
    – Town adds red-light camera, contracting with red-light-camera company
    – Speed camera company keeps 75% of fines issued
    – More traffic tickets are issued, allowing insurance companies to raise rates
    – Insurance companies see additional revenue, and give towns money to install still more cameras

    In fact, when I was living in California, someone did some measurements, and found that yellow lights are, on average, shorter at red-light-camera-equipped lights than at lights without them, causing more motorists to get burned.

    I’m not against the concept, but it should be limited to intersections where red lights are routinely run, with a generous yellow-light, and a fine proportionate to the crime, which is a violation measured in hundredths of seconds.

    1. Good point Jeff about some jurisdictions letting the camera company essentially run the system, to the point even of dialing back the yellow time, to yield more citations/revenues.

      I haven’t heard any suggestion of that happening in WA state, but it would be a good task for an enterprising reporter or blogger to follow up on. Would probably take hours of field time to do it right, I’d expect.

    2. I don’t think that companies that operate the systems keep 75% of the fines. Where did you find that?

    3. Red-light-camera tickets have no bearing on insurance rates.

      They’re a vehicle violation, not a driver violation — the vehicle owner is being cited for allowing unsafe operation of the vehicle, but no driver is identified or cited, and no points are applied to anyone’s MVR.

      Insurance companies support these cameras because of reduced claims, not increased premiums. If fewer cars get hit by scofflaws running lights, the insurance companies pay less in claims, and retain more money from existing premium levels.

      Since insurance rates are both highly competitive and highly regulated, if the cameras work long-term, and produce a significant reduction in claims, they will eventually reduce insurance premiums, not increase them.

  10. But Adam, when the government uses tools like this to cut down on death, injury and high insurance premiums….THAT IS SOCIAL ENGINEERING!

    I see a parallel to the same variety of poorly informed people who oppose health care reform.

  11. I hope the senator never has a loved one maimed in a T-bone accident like I have.

    I have no problem in balancing the books on the backs of the clueless idiots (and drunks) who really should not have been allowed to drive in the first place.

    It is not a right.

    1. Exactly how I feel. I spent a lot of time at the ortho clinic at Harboview after a really bad car accident. Every single person I met there was the victim of a car crash or car-pedestrian mow down. It’s amazing how much carnage we tolerate for the privilege of driving.

    2. I narrowly avoided that fate myself in downtown Auburn a couple of years ago, T-boned by cross traffic. Fortunately she hit just far enough back that the pillar between the front and rear doors took the worst of the impact, and fortunately I didn’t have my children in the back seat. But she still hit me hard enough to shove my car sideways across a full lane of traffic and up against the curb; hard enough that the door pillar caved in until it touched my shoulder, and the door was pressed up against my elbow.

      Red-light cameras are shown to dramatically reduce T-bone accidents, though they sometimes trigger a modest increase in less-severe rear-end accidents. Having lived through both, I’d rather be rear-ended by a cement truck than T-boned by a compact sedan.

  12. If Senator Kastma dislikes what Puyallup is charging for its automated enforcement cameras, the proper solution is for him to run for City Council and change the ordinance. If he reallt feels the need to micromanage, he could apply for the job of city manager. If he dislikes what Seattle is charging, he can move there and run for office. I am so very weary of legislators acting as though they are the only elected officials who know anything or who are responsible to voters. The role of the legislature is to authorize or not to authorize things like the use of automated enforcement cameras in Washington. It is NOT their job to set the fines, pick the locations or handle the implementation. Stick to state stuff Jim.

  13. Most conservatives I know are not fans of the traffic camera. I have a different opinion. I used to work security at the Seattle Times during the third shift. The drivers of the single copy vans can be insane at times. (For those who do not know, single copy vans deliever papers to stores, hotels, the boxes on the street and anywhere else where they use only a small bunch.) I was nearly hit several times by these guys running red lights. They were going so fast I could not see licence plates or ID numbers. No consern for safety. When cameras were set up on Denny and Fairview it stopped. They were told if the camera caught them they would have to pay the fine. It caused some sanity to return. I guess that is why I like them.

  14. Let me put it this way, Adam. Give me Sweden’s driver’s strict licensing procedures and Gothenburg’s fine streetcar system and pedestrian and transit friendly city layout, and I’ll put up with Sweden’s traffic cameras.

    Meantime- Washington State would do better to give examiners a choice: based on an extremely rigorous driving test, subject gets either a driver’s license or a three-year transit pass. Not both.

    Predict major drop in accidents and huge demand and available revenue for transit.

    Would support a Constitutional amendment forbidding private companies doing law-enforcement for profit. However, public camera system with all revenue going to Harborview Emergency might be tolerable.

    Little different idea about non-resident participation in Seattle politics: since their reps are so anxious to be in our politics,let’s just annex the whole rest of the state. Vast majority of their kids who run away pick Seattle to escape to anyhow.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Bravo Mark!

      That last line is right on the money. Would love to know how many of 509’s kids are in the city of Seattle, north of Yesler and south of 50th tonight. And probably just because they are oh so slightly “different”.

  15. I’d sure like to see the “red light” cameras used for crosswalk enforcement. I understand the reason the tickets aren’t a moving violation because the camera doesn’t positively identify the driver but it would be nice to set up a few emphasis patrols with motorcycles that work in conjunction with the cameras just so people know they may be facing much more severe consequences for breaking the law.

  16. I’d like to see them at every intersection on 3rd Avenue from Stewart down to Cherry to nab all of the bus lane violators who ignore the “Do Not Enter” and “No Left Turn” signs during transit-only times. The city could make a mint.

    1. New York was looking at using photo enforcement for bus lanes but the state government wouldn’t give them the authorization to do that.

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