Brantley, Alabama, population 809, isn’t known for much. Indeed, I have spent most of my life in Alabama and had never heard of it.
I mean this as no slight. I am not a big city snob, and I love America’s small towns that, collectively, go far to defining this nation’s greatness.
But Brantley is earning a reputation for something altogether unpleasant.
“Please be aware that your failure to respond to the First Notice from the Brantley Speed Safety Program constitutes a violation of the Town of Brantley Ordinance No. 05122015PE. Unfortunately, your failure to pay the $80 civil penalty by October 10, 2019 has resulted in a Default Fee of $25.00 and could result in civil court action against you.”
Thus read the threatening missive – bold type and all – from the heretofore unknown (to me) town of Brantley.
Speed cameras are not new. European governments love them because they generate enormous additional income from an already tax-oppressed public. One speed camera alone can generate millions in revenue. It is what my British friends call “stealth taxation.” And like the Beatles or a French fashion craze, the popularity of these devices is making its way across the Atlantic.
According to a July 2019 column in The New York Times, there are 2,000 such cameras in use in New York City alone. In January of this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio, speaking like a true man of the people, made no secret of the fact that it’s really about the money: “We need that revenue. That’s the bottom line.” Twelve states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands currently have at least one speed camera in operation.
But Americans – especially the ones in Red States – have generally been skeptical of European methods for doing anything other than making wine and pasta. Things with a New York lineage fare scarcely better in these parts. (Remember this classic Pace Picante Sauce commercial?)
So skeptical has this Red State been of this kind of government, that lawmakers have proposed banning the cameras. But the incentive to green light them is huge. Since Florida deployed red light cameras – the speed camera’s evil twin – on state highways in 2016, it has seen a $100 million annual increase in revenue from traffic violations.
So what about Brantley, Alabama’s lone camera?
Curiously, the mailed ticket did not come from Brantley. It came from Phoenix, Arizona and threatened coercive tactics if I didn’t send a check for $105 ($80 fine + $25 late fee) to Cleveland, Ohio. (Or I could pay online here.) It turns out, the “Brantley Safety Program” is operated by Redflex Traffic Systems, Inc., a for-profit company in the business of fleecing you with your government’s assistance.
This should trouble you more than a little. Redflex has been lobbying state legislatures for years, and, according to the Chicago Tribune, bribed city officials to get the lucrative contract that collected more than $400 million in fines from that city’s population. But Redflex is not alone in lobbying state governments. American Traffic Solutions, Affiliated Computer Services, Sigma Space/Optotraffic, and Traffipax have all written checks to support their own candidates.
I called the Brantley Police Department for answers, and the kind (and possibly naïve) person taking my call readily supplied them. Our conversation went something like this:
“Who sent me this ticket?” I asked. “In the age of scams, I decided to call you to see if it is legit.”
“It’s legitimate,” the person said. “It’s from a company that manages the camera for us.”
“But why do you have a speed camera in Brantley?” I asked. “I’ve never seen one in Alabama.”
“Brantley is only one of a few places in Alabama that has them,” I was helpfully informed. “It required special permission from the State Legislature.”
“But why do you need one?”
“Well, we hired a company to research our traffic, and because we are on the beach route [i.e., to the Alabama – Florida Gulf Coast], we get a lot of traffic through here. On the day of their testing, we had 6,000 cars come through in a day! And that wasn’t even a holiday or weekend. More than half of them were speeding.”
“So Brantley is making some money!” I said. Cha-ching!
“No, no. The camera doesn’t make any money.”
I did some quick math. “If 6,000 cars come through in a day,” I began, “and more than half of them are speeding, and everyone gets an $80 fine as I did, that’s a minimum of $240,000 – per day.”
“Yes, sir, that is a lot of money. You’re right.” We were both in agreement, which seemed odd since one of us was a government employee. “I guess I have never counted it up. But the company keeps most of it and the state takes their chunk, too. But it’s for safety.”
“But it isn’t,” I argued. “My letter here says that I got the ticket in August. But I didn’t receive the citation for another two months. I had no idea I was speeding. That camera slows no one down. It’s just a revenue generator.”
“Yes, sir, you’re right.”
Yes, I am. Speed cameras are government at its worst: a money-grabbing, impersonal bureaucracy that does all of this while claiming to be doing it for you – for your health, for your protection, for your safety. It’s government of, by, and for the government.
Whether it’s a small town like Brantley or a metropolis like New York City, the Redflexes of the world know exactly how to tailor their sales pitch to appeal to their sort of civic duty:
They offer them a legal, efficient means of extracting more money – a lot more money – from you.
WAIT! Do you appreciate the content of this website? We are a nonprofit. That means that our work is made possible and our staff is paid by your contributions. We ask you to consider supporting this important work in an ongoing basis or, if you prefer, perhaps you will drop a few buck in our “tip jar.” All contributions are tax-deductible.