Californians Slam Traffic Cams

Lawmakers in California are trying to put the brakes on a traffic law that privacy advocates say is a little too reminiscent of Big Brother.

The law allows automated cameras to take photos of motorists running red lights, a dangerous violation that causes nearly a quarter of all crashes in cities, and that kills 700 people on American roads every year. But in a nation where privacy and individual freedom are fiercely guarded, the cameras have stirred controversy and visions of technology run amok.

Critics call them an invasion of privacy that fails to distinguish between a careless red-light runner and a confused grandma.

A car crash captured by a red light camera system.

Allowing traffic cameras would be the first step in giving the government too much access to people's private lives, said Republican Bernie Richter, who opposes the law.

"They would have cameras watching people do everythingÂ…God forbid if they put cameras in the men's rooms."

Opponents won a huge victory last month, defeating an effort to extend the law after a three-year trial run. Unless supporters can force another vote in the state assembly, the cameras could be taken down in December.

But proponents argue the cameras save lives and free police to capture rapists and drug dealers. Each camera costs about $50,000 to $60,000 and a leading manufacturer estimates that accidents with serious injuries cost society $32,000 each.
"(Cameras) pay for themselves in crash loss reductions and they also provide some revenue" from fines, said Adam Tuten, a spokesman for Arizona-based American Traffic Systems.

The fine for running a red light in Beverly Hills, Calif. is $271. The city's one camera, installed in September, has caught an average of 130 violators a day, half of whom are issued tickets.

Once pictures are checked for clarity and to make sure the violations are unambiguous, the city sends a citation to the violator's home. The cameras take clear enough pictures to read license plates and detect a driver's eye color.

"We don't send the photos to anyone other than the owner of the car," City Manager Mark Scott said. "We just don't guess. We don't issue the citation unless we're 100 percent sure."

Data provided by American Traffic Systems and California officials shows the number red light violations in cities such as Oxnard and San Francisco, California, have dropped around 40 percent since cameras were installed. "They provide a tremendous deterrent to violators," Tuten said.

Meanwhile, plans are afoot to add 100 more cameras around the country. Cameras have already been installed in several other states including New York, Arizona, and Maryland and now total about 100 nationwide.

In Aril, CBS News' 48 Hours Anchor Dan Rather reported on the use of anti-crime surveillance cameras in Baltimore, Md., where some residents were concerned that the measure was an invasion of privacy.

Despite those fears, Baltimore officials say they have noticed results. Rather spoke with Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke who said that crime dropped 50 percent in the area after the cameras were installed.

To order a transcript of the 48 Hours show titled Nowhere to Hide, call 1-800-777-TEXT. For a VHS-format video, dial 1-800-934-NEWS.