Inaccuracies in Tom Costello’s TODAY Show Report on Red-Light Safety Cameras

National Coalition for Safer Roads | NCSR

Inaccuracies in Tom Costello’s Report for the TODAY Show:
Lights, cameras, reaction; Resistance builds against red-light cameras
Date: Feb. 19, 2012


“In court, depending on where you are, you might be able to ask a police officer about the ticket he wrote you, but you can’t do that with a camera. And the camera presumes that you’re guilty, not innocent.”

It is standard practice for ticketed drivers to be able to review the photographs, video clip and other evidence from their red-light running event, according to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Drivers can review the evidence on their home computer, and in some cases, in court or in the police station. All citations are issued by law enforcement officials who review the camera data, according to the FHWA. In some cases, the officer who reviewed the evidence and issued the citation may be available in court for questions.

There is no presumption of guilt in a ticket issued from camera-based evidence. A citation is a summons. Every person who receives a citation for running a red light has the opportunity to contest his/her ticket. If the owner was not the driver, the owner has the opportunity to submit an affidavit identifying who was driving the vehicle at the time of the violation.
Federal Highway Administration. Priority, Market-Ready Technologies and Innovations.
First Coast News, Jan. 6, 2012


Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon says for communities starved for cash, the cameras have become big money makers catching people who stopped just over the white line. Who didn’t quite clear the intersection before the red. Who turned right on a red. Who were waved through by a construction crew or who were forced into the intersection by a passing emergency vehicle.

In Declan O’Scanlon’s home state of New Jersey, the following legal requirements are in effect concerning red-light running and the use of red-light cameras to issue citations:

  • A law enforcement official shall review the recorded images and determine whether there is sufficient evidence to conclude that a traffic control signal violation has occurred.
    SOURCE: New Jersey Statute: 39:4-8:15
  • A motor vehicle must stop at an intersection with a red light illuminated.
    SOURCE: The New Jersey Driver Manual, page 71.
  • A motor vehicle that enters the intersection and continues through it while the traffic signal is showing red, is in violation of the law.
    SOURCE: New Jersey Statute: 39:4-8.15
  • New Jersey law authorizes a right turn on a red light after a motorist comes to a full stop and checks for traffic.
    SOURCE: The New Jersey Driver Manual, page 68.
  • New Jersey law requires all motorists to yield to emergency vehicles when they sound sirens and/or flashing red and/or blue emergency lights. A motorist should steer to the extreme right of the roadway, stop and wait for the vehicle to pass.
    SOURCE: The New Jersey Driver Manual, page 73.


“Probably 80 or 90 percent of the people that get tickets in these intersections are behaving reasonably. The systems are designed to punish innocent people,” Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon said.

Cameras are only triggered when someone violates the traffic laws regulating red-light running.

The enabling legislation for New Jersey’s red-light camera program states the system is to be used to improve safety on the roads:

“The disregard of traffic control devices at intersections impedes the efficient flow of traffic, and more importantly, dramatically increases the likelihood of accidents that endanger the safety and well being of motor vehicle occupants and pedestrians. The installation and use of a traffic control signal monitoring system, which complements the efforts of local law enforcement, could serve as an effective tool in encouraging drivers to strictly obey traffic control devices at intersections, facilitating the flow of traffic and protecting the safety and well being of motor vehicle occupants and pedestrians.”
SOURCE: New Jersey Statute: 39:4-8.12


“And red-light tickets can be expensive. Fifty dollars in New York, $75 in Colorado and up to $200 in Illinois, plus points.”

The three states Mr. Costello mentions in his report do not attach points to red-light running violations caught on cameras. In fact, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, only two states – Arizona and California – specifically state that points are attached to the violation. The vast majority of remaining states where red-light cameras are in use specifically say no points are attached to the camera-based red-light running violation.
SOURCE: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety


“And then there’s the yellow light issue. Traffic engineers recommend three to six seconds of yellow before the light turns red. But there is no national standard, sometimes no state standard. The less time on yellow, the more red-light tickets.”

The yellow light is not a continuation of the green light. It is specifically used to alert drivers of a pending change in the signal so they may prepare to stop safely.
SOURCE: FHWA. Intersection Safety Issue Briefs. Issue Brief 6. Engineering Countermeasures to Reduce Red-Light Running. FHWA-SA-10-005. Section: Remove Reasons for Intentional Violations. Subsection: Adjust Yellow Change Interval. November 2009.

There are national guidelines that states follow when setting yellow light times, and a few states set a minimum yellow light time. The reason for flexibility is so traffic engineers can follow engineering standards when setting yellow light times to take many roadway conditions into consideration to set signal times.

Federal guidelines recommend yellow lights last from 3 to 6 seconds, but local authorities set the duration.
“Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) 2009 Edition” (PDF). Federal Highway Administration. 2009. p. 489.
Federal Register. Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) Compliance Dates. Section 4D.26. Nov. 30, 2010.

Local traffic engineers determine yellow light timing based on traffic volume, speed, roadway grade, intersection design and other factors.
SOURCE: Federal Register. Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) Compliance Dates. Section 4D.26. Nov. 30, 2010.

Increasing yellow light time helps improve intersection safety, but not as much as adding red-light safety cameras. A 1 second timing increase led to a 36% decrease in red-light running violations in Philadelphia, but violations decreased an additional 96% when red-light safety cameras were installed.
SOURCE: Retting, R. et al. “Reducing Red Light Running through Longer Yellow Signal Timing and Red light Camera Enforcement: Results of a Field Investigation.” January 2007. Page 1.


“In New Jersey, Steve Katzman got one but he wasn’t even in town that day and he could prove it. Someone else was driving his car. So why should he have to pay for a moving violation someone else committed?”

Several courts have held that ordinances which impose liability on the owner of a cited vehicle regardless of whether the owner was the driver at the time of the violation, satisfied due process because the sanction was civil, not criminal and because the vehicle owner was subject only to a small fine and not to incarceration.  Ultimately, the owner of the vehicle is responsible for who they lend their car to. For instance, in State v. Conde, No. 2462LAH (Miami-Dade Cnty. Ct. Apr. 01, 2011) the court relied on Idris v. City of Chicago, 552 F.3d 564 (7th Cir. 2009) and held that citing a vehicle owner based on a rebuttable presumption that the owner was driving the vehicle at the time of the citation did not violate due process.

In, Drew Whitley and Charles E. Cannon, Jr. v. City of Redbank, Tennessee and American Traffic Solutions, Inc.; Case No. 10-0362; in the Chancery Court of Hamilton County, Tennessee, Part 1.  The Court held that (1) the owner of a vehicle can rebut the presumption of guilt by providing the name of the individual who was actually in control of the vehicle at the time of the violation, and (2) the court noted that another case had held that an ordinance with owner-imposed liability did not conflict with state law and was within the police power of the municipality.