NYC accused of rigging red lights in class-action suit

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(CBS News) CBS News reported recently on those red light cameras that snap a picture of your license plate if you run the light.

Now New York City is facing a class-action lawsuit. The city is accused of rigging the lights to catch more drivers and write more tickets.

They're so-called "gotcha" cameras, mounted at intersections. Their photos catch and help ticket drivers running red lights. New York City had them first in 1998.

Robert Sinclair, AAA motor club New York spokesperson said, "Red light cameras are to prevent the very dangerous, so called, T-Bone crashes, where you have the front of vehicle running into the side of another. We are in favor, in concept, of the red light cameras, but they have to be done to certain engineering criteria."

By federal law, drivers have to have enough time to get through a yellow light -- three seconds at the typical 30-mile-per-hour intersection.

Back in October, engineers at AAA New York discovered a problem. At some city intersections with the cameras, the yellow lights were almost a half-second too fast.

Red light violators who later had to pay up now feel set up. Sinclair said, "Well, when the amber lights are too short, people are getting cited, we think, unfairly. If you're timing them too short, then it just becomes a revenue enhancement tool and it erodes support for a red-light camera program."

Brian Hughes paid a $50 fine after a camera caught him running a light in Manhattan in 2010. Hughes said, "A $50 ticket, might not seem like a lot to some people, but to me it's a lot at the end of the day, and so it makes me overly hesitant when I drive."

Hughes is part of a class-action suit, alleging fraud against the City of New York and its 150 red light cameras. They helped generate more than $235 million in fine revenue during the last five years -- $47 million in the last year alone.

Attorney Joseph Santoli said, "The city, in this case, and many other municipalities have a great incentive to shorten the duration of the yellow lights."

The New York City Department of Transportation in a statement said, "There has been no substantiation that any red-light cameras in this report were improperly timed or led to any violation being issued incorrectly."

But this past June, New Jersey suspended its entire red light camera program. Turns out, 63 of its 85 cameras gave drivers too little time to make the yellow light, as required by state law.

"It's making it worse drivers ," one driver told New York CBS station WCBS. "Because if you stop short, you're gonna get hit in the back. So you gotta take the light and then you're got to pay for a ticket. Bad!"

In the U.S., 540 communities use red light cameras.

But with their lawsuit, as many as 6 million ticketed New York drivers have a message for the city: not so fast.

Watch Mark Strassmann's full report in the video above.