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The Jungle

The Red Light Racket

On traffic violations.


Depending on where you live, there’s a decent chance it’s happened to you. You open up your mailbox one day and find an unwelcome letter from your local government. Inside is a traffic ticket, accompanied by a grainy picture of your car and maybe, if the angle is right, yourself in the driver’s seat, frozen with a blank, cowlike look on your face.

Your accuser is a camera, the likes of which have been deployed in hundreds of towns across the country since New York City installed the first one in 1992.

American car culture has long embraced the philosophy that it’s only illegal if you’re a big enough jerk to be an outlier. Anyone who’s been passed on the highway by a police officer doing twenty over the speed limit knows this. There is something unsporting about getting ticketed by an unblinking camera. It’s like watching someone catch a fish with an electric reel, except in this case, you’re the fish.

Like towing rackets and civil asset forfeiture laws, red light cameras sprang up as a reasonable-sounding solution to a serious problem. Running red lights is dangerous, and people should obviously not do it. But the actual safety benefits of traffic cameras are questionable, and in some jurisdictions where they were installed, public safety took a backseat to budgetary interests and palm-greasing between local governments and the companies that manufacture the cameras.

The case of Mats Järlström is instructive. In 2013, Järlström’s wife was caught by a red light camera in Beaverton, Oregon. The one-hundred and thirty dollar ticket got Järlström, who has a degree in electrical engineering, interested in the fascinating question of exactly how traffic lights are timed. The equation that governs the length of yellow lights has been in use since around 1960. It was a fine attempt at civic problem-solving, but Järlström believed the formula was incomplete because it didn’t account for the extra time needed for a car making a right or left turn, rather than proceeding straight through an intersection. The result was that drivers making a turn and caught by a yellow light in what researchers call the “dilemma zone”—forced either to slam on the brakes or to hit the gas—would still be in the box when the light turned red and ticketed through no fault of their own.

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