We call it Competing Studies Syndrome. One study says red-light cameras significantly reduce accidents. Another says they have no effect, and still another says they actually increase accidents.
Why so much conflicting information? An analysis published last month in The Journal of Evaluation and the Health Professions sheds some light on the issue. Researchers from the University of South Florida reviewed six leading red-light camera studies. They found that studies employing more rigorous methodologies and analysis concluded that accidents increased with the use of red-light cameras, while studies using substandard techniques claimed that red-light cameras led to fewer accidents.
Anti-camera activists have known about the flawed nature of the pro-camera studies for years. In fact, the academic community has roundly criticized the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a leading camera proponent, for its shoddy research methods.
Fraudsters exist all up and down the camera revenue pipeline, and some of them don’t hide their subterfuge behind densely worded research reports and impenetrable statistical analyses. They simply rig the data and hope nobody notices. Here are a couple examples.
Earlier this year the Tampa Police Department (TPD) claimed that red-light cameras had reduced crash rates by 29 percent, but a closer look at the data showed that TPD only counted accidents that occurred within 25 feet of the intersection. According to WTSP, neighboring communities use a much wider radius around intersections for accident reporting. A WTSP news investigation determined that accidents occurring between 25 feet and 50 feet from the intersection (the sweet spot for rear-enders) actually jumped 68 percent after the cameras went up.
WTSP also turned up information showing that accidents were down only 12 percent and 7 percent at 50 feet and 100 feet away from intersection, respectively. However, TPD chose not to share this data and initially denied the ability to track accidents at all based on specific distances from the intersection. Nor is there any mention of comparison data from non-camera intersections, which may have indicated a downward trend in intersections accidents overall.
Another example of camera trickery comes from Murrieta, California, where anti-camera activists had successfully shut down the community’s red-light cameras. Throughout the legal battle that finally ended the program, the cameras continued recording alleged violations but not issuing citations.
To convince public officials to reinstate the program, camera operator ATS issued a press release claiming the cameras had recorded nearly twice the number of “red light running events” after the violations were halted. Without the threat of a violation, the company asserted, drivers returned to their pre-camera scofflaw behavior. “This data shows (sic) just how much of a red-light running deterrent they were for drivers in Murrieta,” said ATS spokesman Charles Territo.
Not so fast, Charlie. It turns out the violation numbers ATS used for the post-camera period were for “violations recorded,” which are the raw number of potential violations captured by the camera sensors. None of these had been reviewed by ATS personnel or police to see if they warranted an actual citation. The comparison data ATS used while the cameras were actually operational included only violations that had been reviewed and for which citations had been issued. As a result, the post-camera “violation” rates were artificially inflated in a cynical attempt to show a safety benefit that didn’t exist.
That the pro-camera side must resort to such tactics is indicative of the moral climate of the entire industry. If red-light cameras truly made roads safer, their supporters would not have to resort to obfuscation and numerical sleight-of-hand to justify their existence. If red-light cameras truly benefited entire communities as their supporters claim, the camera companies would not have to resort to bribery to secure contracts.
As staunch red-light camera foe, New Jersey Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, recently put it:
If cameras actually increased safety no one would have to bribe anyone for business—we’d all be lining up! How any public entity can continue to do business with Redflex in particular, but really any of these companies pitching these ineffective, thieving cameras is beyond me. Is the lure of fast cash so strong we have decided that morality doesn’t matter?