Seven Red Flags in ATE Contracts

By Tanisha Pierrette – Research Analyst – Fines and Fees Justice Center

Though often branded as a foolproof solution to safer roads, automated traffic enforcement (ATE)  — specifically the fines and fees revenue it generates — has become big business for local governments and private ATE vendors.  Aside from the egregious harms these monetary sanctions can unleash on the communities they purport to protect, ATE programs also allow private companies to wield a dangerous level of discretion in placing cameras, issuing citations, and collecting debt that can even lead to prosecuting residents. In an effort to shed light on the murky world of ATE programs, the Fines and Fees Justice Center made nationwide public information requests to understand the scope of the contracts between local governments and private technology vendors. We examined speed, red light, and bus camera contracts across 17 jurisdictions that provided contacts. 

Our findings raised serious concerns about the extent to which profit-driven ATE contract provisions are influencing local policy. Using the results from our investigation, we compiled a list of red flags that can help local officials — elected officials and civil servants — determine if and how their potential ATE program may be exacerbating socio-economic disparities and harming their communities. If communities choose to adopt or renew ATE contracts, community leaders should proactively mitigate harm by being vigilant against these provisions.

  1. Beware of ATE vendors making site recommendations based on their own analysis of locations. 

Many vendors offer site selection or statistical analysis to make placement recommendations, theoretically based on metrics such as traffic volume at particular locations, violation frequency, crash data, and installation feasibility. These recommendations distract us from a simple truth: profit-driven ATE vendors are not community safety experts. Their camera placements can often reflect revenue-generating potential rather than true safety concerns.

A city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) is uniquely positioned to provide valuable insights into areas of higher collision rates, road types, infrastructure needs, and the demographics of the surrounding neighborhoods. Local DOTs can recommend camera placement based on locally captured data and community input. In collaboration with other local agencies, DOT can identify potential pitfalls and develop safeguards to mitigate the disproportionate impact on vulnerable populations

Local officials should also engage community members about areas of perceived need and analyze potential unintended consequences for those living in specific communities. Without a comprehensive, locally-driven analysis, low-income communities and communities of color, both of which historically lack proper infrastructure investment, can easily become prime targets for ATE camera placements by vendors seeking to maximize profits.

  1. All contracts should expressly prohibit ATE vendors from changing the length of yellow lights.

If a community proceeds with red light cameras, they should adhere to the recommendations provided by the Federal Highway Administration to enhance safety at signalized intersections. These recommendations focus on incorporating the appropriate duration for displaying the yellow light signal after the green light to ensure intersection safety. Having longer yellow lights can reduce red light running by as much as 50 percent. Conversely, shaving just one-tenth of a second off yellow light timing can result in higher “violation” rates, often translating to millions of dollars being extracted from residents without any safety benefit. Contracts that lack safeguards prohibiting vendors from altering yellow light intervals beyond federal guidelines can result in vendors (and profit-driven city managers) changing the duration of yellow lights to increase the number of citations issued and boost revenue without any legitimate safety or technological justification. 

  1. Ensure your ATE contract explicitly defines how violations will be determined. Pay special attention to the need for human review.

The process by which an ATE  “hit” transitions into a citation and financial sanctions can vary significantly among jurisdictions. Some contracts explicitly state that a person, such as a law enforcement officer, city employee, or vendor employee, must review images captured by ATE cameras to ensure what the camera captured is an actual and demonstrable violation before issuing a citation. However, other contracts and agreements lack clarity on the citation issuance process. The city of Buffalo ended its school speed zone program after the details of a public information request discovered that the city’s system did not have a human operator to verify the cameras’ accuracy, raising significant due process concerns. Jurisdictions may face lawsuits, costing them millions in attorney fees and judgments for operating programs without due process.

Citations should never be automatic. Benign driving behaviors can trigger cameras, and certain offenses may be contextual, such as making a right-hand turn while the light is red, depending on the time of day or other conditions. Human reviewers can help identify false hits, particularly from cameras that may not be maintained or calibrated correctly. Therefore, an individualized determination must be made in each case before citations are issued to ensure that a violation has genuinely occurred. Actively involving a human reviewer in confirming ATE violations is one way to improve the accuracy of their citations.

  1. Beware of vendors that include collection services in their contracts and pass on the costs to drivers.

Some vendors provide collection services as part of their ATE contracts, pursuing drivers who have not paid fines and fees related to an ATE infraction. Typically, they pass on the costs of those activities to drivers by way of new fees, penalties, or interest on top of the delinquent amount. Drivers who are unable to pay an initial citation–or pay it quickly enough–incur new and growing financial penalties through collections fees established by the vendor. In a competitive ATE market, vendors can appear more attractive to a local government by offering collections at little (or no) cost to the government. Instead, the burden of that cost is transferred to the community that this ATE is meant to protect.

For those who are already sacrificing basic needs like food and rent to pay off fines and fees, the compounding effects of collections fees can be even more destabilizing. Debt from traffic infractions can make it exceedingly difficult for people to obtain loans, favorable interest rates, or affordable housing. Collection agencies can even pursue legal action and seek wage garnishment, resulting in the loss of assets and further economic destabilization. 

  1. Avoid contracts that pay vendors per citation. 

We found that in some cases, the vendor receives a fee from the municipality for each paid citation rather than the more common monthly service fee structure. This practice creates perverse incentives for municipalities. Local governments face a choice between shouldering the financial burden of these vendor-created fees by absorbing the cost themselves or being driven to increase fines by an equivalent amount to maintain a stable revenue stream. As a result, this approach can lead to higher ticket costs and a continued need for stricter enforcement measures. While vendors profit from this system, residents and local governments are left holding the bag.

  1.  Avoid agreements that allow ATE vendors to add supplemental fees. 

Some ATE contracts create a scenario in which the ATE company sends the citations to drivers. In such cases, many contracts do not prohibit the vendor from adding fees on top of the original traffic fine designated by the government. In fact, our contract review revealed that some agreements explicitly authorize vendors to include supplementary charges such as mailing service, processing, and credit card convenience fees. Although these cost pass-throughs may allow the vendors to offer lower contracting rates to local governments, it leads to residents picking up the tab. Such provisions significantly increase the financial burden on individuals who have already been issued a fine in the same ways that passing on debt collection costs does. In this way, a procurement officer or lawmaker’s focus on the cheapest contract is actually creating backdoor public policy that directly harms residents, particularly communities of color and lower-wage earners who are disproportionately affected by flat-fee programs.  

These additional charges can quickly accumulate and create significant financial stress for residents. In this sense, residents faced with traffic tickets are not only punished for that infraction, but they must also subsidize the vendor’s operations to maximize the vendor’s profits and make their contracts more competitive.  

  1. Never grant private ATE vendors the power to set the terms of enforcement or prosecution.

Our contract review found that some vendors mandate local governments to prosecute all traffic and failure-to-pay citations. In this context, we read the term “prosecute” to mean “enforce” through some kind of court or administrative action, not necessarily prosecuting as a criminal offense—though that may be possible in some jurisdictions.

Local governments should never give up their enforcement discretion to meet the demands of ATE vendors. Contracts that mandate full enforcement of all citations mean that localities may lose their ability to offer diversion, develop payment plan options, create non-financial sanctions, or even waive fines and fees in the interests of justice. In such cases, residents bear the brunt of the consequences so ATE vendors can reap profits. Private ATE vendors have a financial incentive to have every infraction cited and every payment enforced fully. Aside from this direct conflict of interest, it is unconstitutional to jail someone who is unable to pay a ticket. If someone lacks the ability to pay, the local jurisdiction has a constitutional duty to create alternatives to payment, including fines and fee reductions or waivers where appropriate.

In 17 states, minor traffic offenses are classed as criminal misdemeanors, meaning a minor traffic-related citation could result in criminal consequences. In others, the citation typically results in a court or administrative hearing only if the person wants to contest the ticket or fails to pay it by an assigned date. Irrespective of how states classify traffic citations, failure to pay a traffic fine will often involve court hearings and the potential for escalating sanctions, such as additional fees, bench warrants, and even jail time. Therefore, local officials must retain discretion over whether and to what extent citation enforcement is necessary or just. 

The sheer volume of citations that ATE systems can generate makes its implementation a critical issue for policymakers serious about protecting the lives and livelihoods of the people they represent. Local leaders must empower themselves in any ATE negotiation by understanding the full impact and scope of the program they are looking to implement. Their focus should be on safety, equity, and transparency — not revenue raising. 

Local governments often rely on procurement officers to handle the intricacies of soliciting, evaluating, and awarding contracts for ATE systems. Although typically experts in contracting, they are rarely intimately familiar with the policy or legal implications that may result from introducing new surveillance technology into public spaces. Their primary focus on securing services at the best price may inadvertently overlook the potential harm these contracts could inflict. Therefore, it is incumbent upon elected officials responsible for oversight of public contracting to take a closer look at the contracts and partnerships to ensure that ATE vendors are not setting public policy, either intentionally or unintentionally.

Traffic safety is a critically important issue in every community. Local leaders have a responsibility to ensure that any safety intervention does not bring about more harm. ATE programs reliant on financial sanctions without infrastructure investments, alternative enforcement methods, and ability-to-pay considerations are inherently inequitable.  

Are you a local leader or community advocate looking to prioritize safety over profit? Our latest policy guidance on automatic traffic enforcement includes recommendations and guidance for ensuring your jurisdiction takes a comprehensive, effective approach to address traffic safety that does not punish and exploit vulnerable communities for profit.