Who Cares If Red Light Cameras “Pay for Themselves?”

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Nobody asks if a human police officer pays for himself, in terms of the revenue he brings in from speeding tickets. That’s not the point.

So why is AAA trying to impose this standard on red light cameras? The relevant question is whether paying an equivalent number of police officers to sit at busy intersections all day would also result in a 50% drop in violations, for the same amount of money:

The TAC report also shows that violations from red light cameras drop off quickly — with as much as a 50 percent reduction in violations in only one year.

As intersections get safer, though, less revenue is coming in.

That says to me that the cameras are doing their job well, and are therefore worth paying for. Always good to try to bring down the costs of course, and one way to do that would be to let whole Counties buy the red light cameras, rather than just individual municipalities. They’ll be able to buy more and bring the price per camera down, and they’ll be buying from a bigger tax base.

The cameras look even better when you consider the opportunity cost. Sitting at intersections all day is a terrible use of human police officers’ time. The opportunity cost of paying humans to sit at intersections is quite high, when they could otherwise be doing more of the things that only human police officers can do – going after murderers, drug traffickers, vandals, burglars and other lawbreakers.

Finally, I often notice that conservatives, such as the folks at PA Independent, don’t like to think about these things as part of a global budget. I wear two hats – a taxpayer hat and a consumer hat. I spend some money on public goods and I spend some money on private goods. There is interaction between these things. Spending some more money on some public goods can save me money on the private goods I buy, and vice versa.

If some thing causes me to lose money when I am wearing my taxpayer hat, but then saves me even more money when I am wearing my consumer hat, I am better off. Simply pointing out that people might lose money as taxpayers is not a useful point, in and of itself. You’ve only got a point if you can show that people are worse off as taxpayers and as private consumers.

If red light cameras reduce accidents, that’s money that people are then saving on auto repairs. If a bunch of people don’t have to waste money repairing their cars, maybe they spend that money taking their families out to eat, buying clothes, going to a movies or concerts, etc. Human welfare improves when we don’t have to waste money on car repairs, and can spend it on things we actually want to spend it on.

(Thanks: Eric Boehm)

This entry was posted in Budget, Economy, Health, Transportation.

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