Red Light Cameras: Safety or Revenue?

Five years ago my hometown of Tallahassee, Florida contracted with Xerox to set up 19 red light cameras at seven busy intersections in town. The contract had the city pay Xerox about $87,000 a month to operate the cameras, and charged drivers a fine of $142 for being caught on camera running a red light.

When the program was established, city officials claimed that the cameras were installed for safety reasons, to deter drivers from running red lights, not to raise revenue. If we take them at their word, the program worked. Red light violations have fallen more than 90% since the program began. The program has been so successful that the city is not taking in sufficient revenues from fining violators to pay Xerox the fees for operating them.

You can guess the ending of this story. The city has announced that when the contract with Xerox expires in August, it will not be renewed and the red light camera program will end. Here is a program that has been a huge success by the city’s stated criterion, so the city is terminating it.

I see two possible explanations for this. One is that governments tend to terminate successful programs and continue the unsuccessful ones. The other is that the city officials who originally stated that the motivation for installing the cameras was to deter red light violations, and not the revenue generated from fines, were lying. I’m not ruling out the possibility that both explanations are correct.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas.
Posts by Randall G. Holcombe | Full Biography and Publications
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