Red Light Cameras – The New Iowa Cash Cow

I don’t like red light cameras. There, I said it. I don’t like them. These cameras are spreading like the plague across Iowa, and I don’t like it.

No, I have never been picked up by a red light camera, nor have I ever fallen victim to the speed-trap cameras on Interstate 235. But I don’t care. I don’t like the idea of these cameras.

I hear the argument of “well, if you don’t run the red light or speed, what do you have to worry about?”. To me, that’s not the point. There’s a fine line between sensible enforcement of rules for the well-being of all, and overbearing government intrusiveness.

Today, the Des Moines Register published a story where Des Moines Police say accidents have been reduced “33%” due to red light cameras. This sounds astounding. All hail red light cameras! But not so fast. Here’s a sampling of the “reduction” police are bragging about at five intersections:

  • 5 accidents in the last six months of 2011, compared to 5.5 accidents in the same time period over the last 4 years.
  • 3 accidents vs. 5 previously.
  • 4 accidents vs. 5.25 previously.
  • 5 accidents vs. 9 previously.
  • 1 accident vs. 2.25 previously.

Technically, it’s correct to say “33% reduction.” But it’s highly misleading to sing the praises of reducing something from 6 to 4. Especially when the last six months of 2011 were free of snow and ice during one of the mildest falls/winters in recent memory.

We are told it’s about safety, not money. “If it saves even one life,” etc. But it’s undeniably profitable. According to KCCI News, Des Moines netted $271,000 from traffic cameras in December (compared to $130,000 in November).

Which brings me to this question: if everyone obeyed the law, and thus the cameras generated no revenue, would our leaders be happy? Or would they simply scrap the cameras and invent another fee, another camera watching for something, another tax, another “whatever”, to levy against citizens to keep the cash cow rolling?

This is a tax blog, not a public policy blog. But there is a relationship to taxes in all this. Namely, it’s the debate about “how much of our money is enough?”.

Image: digitalart /