Friday, August 6, 2010

Red Light Cameras: A Primer

Last week, in a praiseworthy, bipartisan vote, the County Legislature's Ways and Means Committee rejected a plan to mount the City's red-light cameras on county-owned utility poles.

If you read this blog, you know something about red-light cameras, those miraculous machines that caused the President of City Council to exclaim:

"We're going to make a lot of money."
The committee's vote was encouraging for reasons beyond the merits of the issue, because Republican county legislators were standing up for something.   From the time when they failed to stand up for their position in the controversy over the Public Defender, their marching orders have appeared to be a kind of institutionalized political cowardice:   don't make waves; don't attract attention; let our opponents walk all over us in the public debate, but don't respond; say nothing; above all do nothing.

We imagine that Republican legislators are under pressure right now to undo, in full Legislature, the sensible and principled act of the Ways and Means Committee.   Pressure coming from their own side.

We imagine that Democratic legislators who joined the winning vote in committee -- and that included the Democratic Leader and the Assistant Democratic Leader -- will be under similar pressure about now, from their side.


Before you cave, have a seat in Professor Philbrick's classroom, to learn something about red-light cameras.

And pay attention.   This will be on the final exam.

Public Safety
1.   Numerous studies have found that when these cameras are put in place, rear-end collisions increase dramatically.   Drivers who once might have stretched the light a bit now slam on their brakes for fear of getting a ticket, with predictable results.   A study of red-light cameras in Washington, D.C., by The Washington Post found that despite producing more than 500,000 tickets (and generating over $32 million in revenues), red-light cameras didn't reduce injuries or collisions.   In fact, the number of accidents increased at the camera-equipped intersections.

Likewise, red-light cameras in Portland, Ore., produced a 140 percent increase in rear-end collisions at monitored intersections, and a study by the Virginia Transportation Research Council found that although red-light cameras decreased collisions resulting from people running traffic lights, they significantly increased accidents overall.

This problem can be aggravated by jurisdictions that shorten the duration of yellow lights, apparently to generate more ticket revenue.   Last year, CBS News reported on an especially egregious case in Maryland:   A traffic-camera intersection had a 2.7-second yellow light, while nearby intersections had 4-second times.   Shorter yellow lights are more dangerous -- but shorter yellow lights plus traffic cameras generate revenue.

Full article.

2.   As the Virginia Department of Transportation showed in a 2007 report, accidents increased 29 percent at the commonwealth's intersections that had robotic cameras ticketing drivers.   These devices make streets less safe, not more safe. Getting rid of intersection cameras, then, is the right way to kick off a "stop on red" week that focuses on saving lives.

Full article.

  The University of South Florida's College of Public Health concluded that instead of improving safety, the cameras actually make intersections more dangerous.   Further, its study said, the cameras give insurance companies a reason to jack up rates for those who get tickets.

Etienne Pracht, an associate professor of health policy and management, along with Barbara Langland-Orban and John T. Large, did the research.   The three surveyed several major studies of red light cameras.

One such study was by the Urban Transit Institute at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.   It compiled 57 months of before-and-after data that showed red light cameras were associated with a 40 percent increase in accident rates and no decrease in severe crashes.   Two other studies the researchers deemed reliable showed crashes climbed after cameras were installed.

USF researchers determined that studies supporting cameras used flawed methods.   One oft-cited study was financed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in 2002.

Pracht and Langland-Orban said that the institute's study, like most that show cameras are effective, didn't use scientific methods.

Relying on information about cameras from insurance companies is ill advised, the USF study concluded, because insurers can profit if tickets are moving violations because they can charge higher premiums.

The genesis of USF's College of Public Health's research on red light cameras was in 2005.   Trauma center hospitals, facing budget cuts, were in search of revenue.  They had been approached by vendors of red light cameras to support bills in the Legislature that would make them legal in the state.   In exchange, they'd get a cut of the money, according to the researchers.

"Locally, the reception has been to ignore our research," [Langland-Orban] said. "If you want the money from cameras, you don't want to know what their impact is."

Full article.

When Red Light Cameras Go In, Yellow Light Times Go Down
1.   Tennessee
The city of Chattanooga was forced refund red light camera fines to motorists trapped by an illegally shortened yellow light.

2.   Dallas, Texas
An investigation by KDFW-TV, a local TV station, found that of the ten cameras that issued the greatest number of tickets in Dallas, seven were located at intersections where the yellow duration is shorter than the bare minimum recommended by the Texas Department of Transportation.

3.   Lubbock, Texas
KBCD, a local television station, exposed the city’s short timing of yellow lights at eight of the twelve intersections where the devices were to be installed.

4.   Missouri
The city of Springfield prepared for installation of a red light camera system in 2007 by slashing the yellow warning time by one second at 105 state-owned intersection signals across the city.

5.   Tennessee
Even without red light cameras, police in Nashville have been earning hundreds of thousands in revenue by trapping motorists in conventional ticket traps at city intersections with the shortest yellow warning time.

6.   California
In 2005, Union City, California was caught trapping motorists with a yellow signal time 1.3 seconds below the minimum established by state law. As a result, the city was forced to refund more than $1 million in red light camera fines.

While cities claim that safety, deterrence, and cost-reduction are their ultimate priorities in camera system installations, revenue statements indicate otherwise. Cities that employ the devices see a dramatic spike in revenue.

City budgeters are counting on these fines as a revenue stream and simply using the argument of safety as cover.

Mustard Street's entries regarding red light cameras:
The People Win One - 7/30/2010

Ka-Ching:   To Serve and Collect - 5/7/2010

"We're Going to Make a Lot of Money" - 2/3/2010

:   Stick to your guns.   Stand up to this sleaze.

Class dismissed.

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