The devices take digital photographs of vehicles that run red lights or otherwise disregard traffic signals. A color copy of the photo, along with a ticket, is mailed to the vehicle's registered owner.
Towns must first pass local ordinances approving the use of the cameras before applying to the state program. State officials review each application to see that it meets criteria, including whether other accident-reducing methods have been explored and whether a town has accurately timed street lights.
Municipalities selected for the program will be allowed to install traffic cameras at high-volume intersections.
The New Jersey towns will join more than 300 U.S. communities in 25 states that use the cameras, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. They are used in major cities such as New York, Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington.
Opponents of the cameras criticize the practice as a clandestine surveillance method that infringes on civil liberties and denies drivers the right to contest a traffic ticket issued by an unseen accuser.
"Our point of view is that red light cameras are a scam, not just a money making venture," said Steve Carrellas, coordinator of the New Jersey chapter of the National Motorists Association. "If there's a real red light running problem at an intersection, putting a red light camera there doesn't fix the underlying problems of an intersection."
Supporters of the idea, such as Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, who sponsored New Jersey's legislation approved in January, says such initiatives cut down on speeding and dramatically reduce the number of accidents.
"It makes intersections safer, people safer and cuts down on injuries," Wisniewski said. "I've heard all types of opposition to it, about 'big brother' getting involved, but there's no difference if a police officer is preventing them for running a red light."
Critics also say that red light camera programs can be abused by cash-strapped municipalities trying to generate revenues. "These days, with towns hurting, they can claim it's for safety but they certainly love the revenues," Carrellas said. "If they claim safety, then use the money to fix the intersection, not to reap money from it."
Wisniewski acknowledges the program is cost-effective way to help police departments augment their manpower, but dismisses critics who say it's strictly a revenue generator.
"It's not a line to money-grab," Wisniewski said. "The way to enforce motor vehicle regulations is through fines. We have fines for reckless driving - not because we're going to fine people and make money - but because it's a deterrent."
Motorists who fail to obey traffic signals in New Jersey get two points on their license and face fines ranging from $85 to $140. Those caught by a camera would get similar fines but no license points.
A survey earlier this year by the AAA Clubs of New Jersey found that about 3 of every 4 Garden State drivers supported the use of cameras to catch drivers who run red lights. AAA polled 1,000 drivers.
David Weinstein, a spokesman for AAA, said red light camera programs have had mixed success around the country.
"It's something that needs to be talked about publicly, because red light cameras, there's two sides of it," Weinstein said. "The opportunity is there to increase safety at intersections, but the opportunity is also there to increase revenues without any safety side effects."
The National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running, a group supported by the red light camera industry, says an analysis of 150 traffic studies shows by an 11-to-1 margin that cameras reduce fatalities, crashes and traffic violations.
The campaign's executive director, Leslie Blakey, says the cameras are meant as a deterrent, not as punishment.
"Driving goes up in the U.S. about 40 percent every 10 years," Blakey said. "Law enforcement personnel, the number of cops available to issue tickets has remained static, and in some cases has decreased, and in the same time frame we keep adding more responsibilities to law enforcement and do not give those departments anywhere near enough modern tools."
Blakey said the cameras average about $50,000 to $75,000 each, and more complicated intersections can require up to $150,000 in equipment. She said it's still a cost effective solution for many towns.
Critics and proponents alike say they'll be watching New Jersey's pilot program closely to see how effective it is. "They've worked in some places, and in some places they've been abused," Weinstein said. "So it remains to be seen how it'll work out for New Jersey. Traffic safety should be the only goal, and if that's the only goal, it should work out well."