TODAY   |  February 19, 2013

Red-light cams boost revenue, but frustrate drivers

Currently 21 states and Washington, D.C., use automated cameras at traffic intersections to catch violations such as running through red lights and stopping over white lines. While the cameras bring in thousands of extra dollars, drivers and some government officials argue they are inaccurate and rip people off. NBC’s Tom Costello reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> the controversial cameras used to catch you running red lights . many people argue they're often inaccurate or unfair. tom costello has been looking into that story. tom, good morning to you.

>> reporter: savannah, good morning. 24 states and d.c. allow these red light cameras . nine states ban them. fairness is the big issue. in court, depending 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. they can be horrific crashes, red light runners are especially dangerous because the people they hit are usually caught completely by surprise. each year, some 700 people die and 122,000 are injured in accidents involving a driver who ran the red. to cut into that rate, more than 540 communities nationwide have turned to red light cameras . in washington, d.c. , the police chief is a firm believer.

>> even just in the last five years, 54 traffic fatalities down to 19. that's dramatic.

>> reporter: nationwide, insurance institute for highway safety says cameras have cut crashes by 24% and fatalities at intersections by 17%.

>> when traffic violations are enforced, violations go down.

>> reporter: so why then is this lawmaker in new jersey determined to tear them all out?

>> because they're a rip off. because they are designed to steal money from innocent people.

>> reporter: assemblyman declan o'scanlan says it's become big money makers, 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 are waved through by a construction crew or who were forced into the intersection by a passing emergency vehicle .

>> 80, 90% of the people who get tickets are behaving reasonably. the systems are designed to punish innocent people.

>> reporter: and red light tickets can be expensive. $50 in new york, $75 in colorado, up to $200 in illinois. plus points. in dallas, nbc 5 found the cash adds up.

>> reporter: some cameras bring in money the size of an nfl paycheck. there's one camera in arlington, texas, that's generated $2.5 million of tickets in four years.

>> reporter: in the greater washington , d.c. area, nbc 4 tallied up the fines.

>> we found drivers in the d.c. capital region received at least $18 million in fines in just a one-year period alone.

>> reporter: 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. in new jersey, steve katzman got one but wasn't even in town that day and he can prove it. someone else was driving his car. why should he have to pay for a moving violation someone else committed?

>> i was frustrated and angry. it was an unfair burden that i thought was placed on me as the owner of the car.

>> reporter: out of principle, he spent a small fortune, fighting the ticket and won. but in 24 states, big brother is watching the red. and another issue here. many of these states and cities actually have a private company running the red lights and that private company shares the revenue with the city. in some cases, these companies have actually lost their contracts because they were found to not be calibrating the lights properly and also because they were found to be, in some cases, paying off members of city council . so, there's a lot of controversy here across the country. s savannah?

>> that ought to burn people up to hear that. tom costello, thank you very much. you support red light cameras , is that it?

>> the speeding cameras are too pervasive perhaps.