Drivers often put on their best behavior as soon as they see a police car nearby. After passing law enforcement, they might relax their driving style because the risk of getting a ticket seems lower.
Yet you could get a traffic ticket without ever seeing a police officer. Some roadways use automated cameras to enforce traffic laws. Red light and speed cameras take photos that capture a moment, but they sometimes fail to capture the whole story.
How Red Light Cameras Work
Motion-activated cameras that enforce speed limits and red lights have become more common over the past few decades. The cameras are usually mounted on or near traffic signals in busy intersections.
Traffic camera systems can include:
- Red light cameras, which take pictures of motor vehicles when they enter the intersection while the light is red
- Speeding cameras, which use similar technology to photograph motorists who exceed the speed limit
- License plate number recognition systems, which use photos and national data to identify the registered owner of the vehicle
These cameras capture information that allows law enforcement to send a citation to the offender. The tickets are just as official as any citation an officer would give you on the scene.
Review of Traffic Violations Caught on Camera
The entire ticket process is not automated. In the interest of due process, a law enforcement official typically reviews the photographic evidence to make sure a violation has occurred before sending a citation.
Most red light cameras allow motorists to be in the intersection while the traffic light is red for about a half-second before issuing a citation. This buffer reduces the urge to slam on the brakes when drivers spot a camera at a yellow light.
Traffic camera state laws determine how these systems can track driving violations. A police officer must be present to witness and verify the offense in some states.
Controversy Over Red Light Cameras
Law enforcement groups and traffic safety advocates claim red light camera programs save lives. The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) studied red light camera systems in 2005. The study concluded that these systems increase highway safety while reducing crash-related costs.
Critics say traffic cameras increase car accidents and boost municipal revenues more than public safety. For example, the National Motorists Association challenges the FHA's study, claiming such cameras are ineffective.
Automated Evidence Collection Raises Questions
Much of the legal controversy about traffic cameras relates to how states can verify evidence of an infraction, given that a machine collects it. The limitations of technology can sometimes risk inaccurate conclusions.
Therefore, only some areas in the U.S. use traffic cameras for enforcement. For example, the Los Angeles County Superior Court ruled in 2011 that using these photos is unenforceable because there is no witness to testify against the driver. While such tickets haven't been enforced in California since then, some urban areas will again use speed cameras starting in 2024.
You can challenge a camera citation and the evidence. However, most jurisdictions verify photos with a traffic officer before issuing a citation.
Receiving a Traffic Ticket by Mail
How the state serves a traffic camera ticket has also caused controversy. Usually, drivers receive tickets for a moving violation at a traditional traffic stop. Mailed traffic tickets can be confusing.
You might be surprised to receive a formal Notice of Violation in the mail. If a police officer doesn't pull you over, you might not realize that you broke the law until weeks later.
Courts have generally upheld that mailing a citation is lawful if the recipient has the chance to acknowledge receipt or request personal service. Failure to respond to a mailed photo ticket typically results in a default guilty judgment.
Federal Law and Regulation
Federal courts have ruled that municipalities can issue red light camera tickets. Courts have also dismissed or ruled against lawsuits challenging enforcement through private traffic camera companies.
Drivers' Constitutional Rights
In 2008, multiple car owners received a $90 ticket after someone else ran a red light with their vehicle. They claimed that Chicago's red light camera system violated their 14th Amendment rights. The owners appealed their case to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on the grounds of the equal protection and due process clauses.
The federal judges in the case ruled against the vehicle owners. Their opinion stated: “No one has a fundamental right to run a red light or avoid being seen by a camera on a public street." The judges also wrote that a vehicle owner should pay the ticket despite someone else driving the car.
Yellow Light Guidelines
Since 2011, states have adopted the national Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). These guidelines determine how long yellow lights should last.
According to federal regulations, a driver only gets a ticket if they enter the intersection after the light has turned red. Timing standards can help address complaints from drivers who claim they got tickets for running red lights because the yellow lights were unreasonably short.
Contest a Traffic Ticket With an Experienced Lawyer
Red light camera tickets can be expensive. They also risk driver's license points or offenses on your driving record.
If you received a citation for a speeding or red light camera violation, you may need an experienced traffic ticket attorney. An attorney specializing in defending traffic cases can evaluate all the evidence to protect your legal rights.