Automated Traffic Enforcement

Updated on January 10, 2023

In many municipalities today, the crush of traffic makes it impossible for local police to adequately enforce the traffic laws. Road safety is deteriorating as too many motorists push red lights, exceed speed limits on residential streets and block congested intersections. Automated enforcement using traffic cameras can help.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that traffic cameras are in place for enforcement in 23 states. The federal Center for Disease Control views automated enforcement as a public health intervention. According to the CDC, cameras are widely used in other industrialized countries for automated enforcement.

An act relative to traffic enforcement creates the necessary legal mechanisms to support camera enforcement. It is carefully crafted to address two principal concerns about automated enforcement (a) the concern that municipalities might use automated enforcement in unreasonable ways to make money; (b) the concern that cameras might create records about individuals that would put their privacy at risk.

I have been working on legislation for automated enforcement for several years. I will be refiling it in a form consistent with this post.

The Process for Ticketing

Existing law

Currently, Chapter 90C defines the mechanism for writing and processing tickets for moving vehicle violations. When a police officer in any municipality stops a vehicle for a moving violation, they ask for the motorist’s drivers license. Having identified the motorist, they fill out a standard citation form which is then transmitted to the Registry of Motor Vehicles and becomes part of the motorist’s individual driving record. If the motorist wishes to pay any assessed fine, they pay the Registry. If a motorist wishes to appeal the ticket, they must notify the Registry which will, in turn, notify the local district court where a hearing will be set up.

For parking violations, there is a different statutory process (and a variant of that process for larger communities). The police officer does not know who parked the vehicle, but does know who owns the vehicle, based on the plate. The owner of the vehicle is responsible for paying the ticket. Payment is made to the parking clerk of the municipality, not to the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Appeal of the ticket is initially made to the parking clerk, although further review in the courts is available. Only if fines are not paid or dismissed does a record go to the Registry of Motor Vehicles. If there are two or more unresolved parking tickets on record at the Registry, they must be resolved before the owner of the vehicle may renew their drivers license or the registration of their vehicle.

The new mechanism

The existing mechanism for moving violation tickets does not work for automated enforcement of moving violations because the cameras do not provide a positive identification of the motorist. The available enforcement technology is only able to read the license plate of the motor vehicle. An act relative traffic enforcement adds a new chapter 90I to the general laws. Section 3 of the new chapter defines a new legal mechanism which resembles the existing mechanism for enforcing parking tickets.

The new chapter allows municipalities to use cameras for the purpose of moving violation enforcement on roads that they control or, with the permission of the state, on roads within their boundaries that are state controlled. They may also install cameras on school buses. The cameras may be used only to enforce the following specific “camera enforceable violations”:

  • Failure to stop at a steady red light;
  • Making an illegal right on a steady red light;
  • Speeding;
  • Passing a school bus when warning signals are activated;
  • Blocking an intersection;
  • Driving in a bus lane.

When a camera identifies a violation, the municipality must mail a violation notice to the registered owner of the vehicle. The notice must include the photo and all of the details of the alleged violation and explain the process for contesting the violation. The motorist may pay any assessed fine to the municipality or the motorist may contest the violation through the municipality. The municipality must allow the violation to be contested in writing or online as well as in person. A municipality will notify the Registrar of Motor Vehicles only if the violation is not resolved. If there are five or more unresolved violations on record, the Registrar will not renew the motor vehicle’s registration until the violations are resolved. Failure to resolve violations is not an impediment to renewal of a drivers license.

The municipality can decide to issue only written warnings for educational purposes instead of assessing a violation, but the decision to issue only a warning must be governed by objective criteria defined in a written policy.

There is no liability for camera violations in the following circumstances:

  • if the motorist also gets a moving violation citation from a traffic officer;
  • if the vehicle was reported stolen;
  • if the vehicle is a rental vehicle and the rental company provides information as to the operator of the motor vehicle, in which case the liability runs to the operator of the vehicle.

MassDOT is authorized to promulgate regulations governing the implementation of automated enforcement.

Protections against unreasonable enforcement

An act relative traffic enforcement very tightly limits the exposure of motorists and includes other provisions to assure that municipalities will not overuse the new tool.

  • The maximum fine is limited to $25.
  • Compensation to vendors of automated enforcement may not be based on the volume of tickets.
  • Municipalities must transfer any net profits from the use of cameras to the state.
  • Cameras can only be used for the “camera enforceable violations” which are listed above.
  • Municipalities may only install 1 camera for every 2,500 residents. (School bus cameras do not count towards this limit.)
  • Each location must be approved by the top municipal executive (city manager, mayor or board of selectmen) after a public hearing.
  • Signage must be posted to notify motorists of the cameras.
  • Municipalities must conduct public awareness campaigns about their use of automated enforcement.
  • The violation must be material:
    • In the case of red light enforcement, a citation may not be issued if any part of the vehicle was in the intersection when the light turned yellow.
    • In the case of speed enforcement, the motorist must be going at least 5 miles over the limit.
    • In the case of school bus enforcement, the motorist must actually cross the plane of the stop sign.
    • In the case of making an illegal right, the entire vehicle must have crossed the stop line.
    • In the case of blocking an intersection, the entire vehicle must be in the intersection.
  • Appropriate exceptions are also provided if a vehicle was part of a funeral procession, if a vehicle was pulling over to accommodate an emergency vehicle or if the vehicle otherwise had to commit the violation to comply with some other law.
  • The violations shall not become part of the vehicle owner’s record at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
  • The violations shall not cause surcharges on the vehicle owner’s insurance.
  • Municipalities must report annually to MassDOT on their use of cameras and include an analysis showing the nexus between the use of the cameras and public safety goals. MassDOT will post these reports online.

Protections for motorist privacy

An act relative traffic enforcement very tightly limits the scope and use of information collected by cameras to protect motorist privacy.

  • Cameras may only take photographs when a violation occurs.
  • Cameras will not photograph the front of the violating vehicle and, to the extent practicable, additional efforts will be made to avoid capturing identifiable images of the occupants or contents of the vehicle.
  • Information derived from the camera may not be used by the camera vendor for any purpose other than enforcing violations.
  • Photographs and other recorded evidence shall be destroyed within 48 hours after the violation is disposed of.
  • Photographs shall not be discoverable or admissible in any proceeding (other than the ticket hearing) without a court order and courts shall not order release of the photograph except to establish civil or criminal liability for the violation.
  • Photographs and other information collected by the camera systems are not public records.

MassDOT oversight and program limitations

The version of this legislation that we will file for this session will be identical to what we filed in 2021, which in turn incorporated some changes based on floor discussion in 2020 which were not reflected in this post.

The principal changes are:

  • to require MassDOT review and approval of any municipality’s automated enforcement program;
  • to require MassDOT to consider social and racial equity impacts of a proposed program in its review;
  • to limit the statewide total number of municipal programs in effect at any one time to 10;
  • to require reporting by MassDOT to the legislature on the operation of the municipal programs, including public safety, traffic congestion and social and racial equity impacts.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

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