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Run a red light? You may soon be caught on camera

Massachusetts lawmakers are expected to vote on legislation allowing police to use cameras on traffic lights — with conditions

Could traffic enforcement cameras help clear some of Boston's epic congestion?Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Two of the great policy issues of the day — Boston’s grueling traffic congestion and the growth of the high-tech surveillance state — are set to collide on Beacon Hill this week, when the Massachusetts Senate debates whether to allow cameras to be used to catch drivers running red lights and other moving violations.

It is not a new proposal — far from it, in fact. Lawmakers have considered various forms of red-light traffic enforcement cameras for about a quarter-century, only to see the proposals falter amid concerns about due process, privacy, and surveillance.

But state Senator William Brownsberger of Belmont said the latest version of the bill takes pains to address those concerns. That, in tandem with mounting frustration over traffic congestion and greater awareness of roadway safety issues, may give this effort a much greater chance of passage than previous initiatives, he said.


"What’s important about the climate right now is that congestion is a real problem,” he said. “We’re trying to improve bus lanes to relieve congestion, we’re trying to prevent people from blocking the box to relieve congestion.”

The Senate is preparing to debate the bill Thursday. It would allow most cities and towns to use cameras at traffic lights and on school buses to punish certain traffic violations. The targeted violations include running red lights, turning right on red where not permitted, driving in bus-only lanes, speeding through intersections, “blocking the box” by stopping in an intersection, and passing stopped school buses.

Red-light enforcement technology uses sensors and cameras to detect traffic violations, and then sends citations to the owner of the offending vehicle, as the cameras do not detect the driver. It’s common in parts of Europe and used in more than 20 states, but is often unpopular with motorists and has been on the retreat in the US. Chicago has faced heavy scrutiny for over-zealously issuing citations to raise money, and Texas, which had previously allowed the cameras, recently outlawed them.


Massachusetts municipal officials have long clamored for the power to use the cameras; Boston even tested them in 1996 on Commonwealth Avenue without issuing citations. Past proposals have fallen well short of becoming law, however, due in part to those concerns about surveillance and overly harsh enforcement.

But after so many years of debate and discussion, Brownsberger said the proposal has been refined to mitigate those concerns — complete with a massive list of conditions defining and limiting when tickets could be issued.

Fines would be limited to $25, which is below the amounts when police officers issue these moving violations. Moreover, the revenue from the citations could only be used to pay for the costs of the camera program. Vendors could not be paid on a per-ticket basis, limiting the incentive to issue large numbers of citations, and any surplus money generated by tickets would be turned over to a state fund.

“We want these cameras to go up and be money losers,” Brownsberger said. “If vehicles stay out [of bus lanes or intersections] and no money comes in, that is a win, because that is public safety.”

Cities would be limited to one camera per 2,500 residents, which in Boston, for example, would equal about 280, and 38 in a smaller city the size of Quincy, or 11 in suburbs like Needham. The camera locations themselves would be subject to a public hearing, and must be approved by the top municipal officials, such as mayor, city manager, or board of selectmen. Speeding violations would only count if motorists were driving more than 5 miles per hour above the limit, drivers who barely make it through a yellow light would not be faulted, and communities would be required to allow appeals both in writing or online.


Another important distinction is the citations would not go on driving records, nor would motorists face a surcharge.

And to address privacy concerns, communities must delete images of violations 48 hours after they are settled, and the images could not be released to other authorities without a court order, nor could the images be used as evidence in other cases or investigations. Also, cameras would only be allowed to take images of the back of cars and only after a violation. That would mark a difference from the largely unregulated automatic license plate readers dispersed across the state, including on the Cape Cod bridges, which collect information about every vehicle that crosses the camera.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which in the past raised issues with red-light enforcement cameras, said it is neutral on the bill, but commended these provisions.

“Whenever the legislature expands the government’s use of technology, it must simultaneously expand privacy and due process protections. The ACLU of Massachusetts appreciates that this bill pays careful attention to both,” said Kade Crockford, director of the Massachusetts chapter’s technology for liberty program.


Dave Maass, a researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said new camera systems must include rigorous cybersecurity standards to avoid being hacked, and should be subject to regular oversight to ensure government officials are not using the system for surveillance.

“Something like that should be reevaluated on a continuing basis and should not be expanded from its original purpose,” Maass said.

Red-light cameras have long been supported by roadway safety advocates, who say the threat of a citation where police are not present will cause drivers to think twice before blowing through an intersection. Hundreds of people a year are killed in red-light-running crashes in the US, with more than 930 in 2017, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

However, research has shown mixed safety results from red-light enforcement. One type of accident — angled crashes at intersections — decreased by 25 percent, while rear-enders went up by about 15 percent, according to a federal study.

If the Senate approves red-light enforcement Thursday, it would still need to pass the House and earn Governor Charlie Baker’s signature to become law.

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Robert DeLeo did not commit to taking up the proposal. Massachusetts Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jacquelyn Goddard said the Baker administration does not have a position, “but appreciates all efforts aimed at making our roads safer.”

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has signaled his support for using cameras for some traffic enforcement, where drivers have complained that lax enforcement contributes to congestion, especially blocking the box at downtown intersections.


Other groups may have different concerns about the bill.

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, has long supported allowing red-light cameras, but said communities must be allowed to capture all of the administrative costs related to running the system.

Boston’s police union previously opposed red-light cameras, arguing officers can handle the job, the Globe reported at the time. The union did not respond to a request for comment about the most recent proposal.