June 12, 2001

Red light for traffic cameras

Dick Armey

Government is increasingly turning to a new weapon in the fight to protect motorists from dangerous roads and highways. Fifty cities across the country have, with the help of the federal government, deployed red light cameras to monitor the streets in the name of safety. After all, it is the duty and responsibility of government to ensure the security of its citizens.

The more closely one examines the safety promise of red light cameras, however, the more one finds they may actually diminish safety. From the federal government on down, sound engineering practices have been scrapped in favor of camera-friendly regulations. One wonders if the concern for safety has given way to a greater concern for profit.

As long as this is allowed to continue, we’re all at risk.

It all started a little over 15 years ago, about the time New York City first began experimenting with red light cameras. Officials responsible for writing national transportation guidelines decided to tell cities that they should shorten yellow signal times at intersections. Thats right, they told cities to reduce caution times. And the cities that followed these guidelines quickly discovered that they could catch more motorists entering intersections on red. In other words, it is no accident that this weakening of the signal timing rules coincided with the so-called “red light running crisis.”

Thats because the duration of yellow signal time is one of the most important factors for intersection safety.

Simply put, shorter yellow lights mean more people enter on red. When yellow time is inadequate, a condition develops where individuals approaching an intersection are unable either to come to a safe stop or proceed safely through the intersection before the light turns red. Engineers call this condition the “dilemma zone” and its something that the old formula for calculating yellow times was specifically designed to avoid.

That has all changed. The new formula produces much shorter yellow times as much as 30 percent shorter, depending on the particular intersection involved. Of course, these changes were made in the name of safety. But even if you grant that they were made with the best of intentions, the policy of shortening yellows has been a complete failure. Intersections are less safe as a result. Nonetheless, many within the transportation bureaucracy cling to reduced yellow times because it is extremely profitable.

Each time a red light camera snaps a photo of a license plate, government hits the jackpot. The Districts budget assumes its camera program will collect $16 million in fines. Montgomery County, Md., wants to triple its camera revenue by increasing the red light ticket fine to $250. Its no wonder that cities are finding camera-based enforcement attractive.

But there is another way out of the so-called red light running crisis. Consider this example. The city of Mesa, Ariz., added about a second of yellow time to several intersections. The result was a 73 percent reduction in red light entries and a corresponding reduction in accidents. The safety effect was so dramatic that the red light cameras became money losers and the city recently decided to retire the devices.

Another intersection in Fairfax, Va., experienced an average of one red light entry every 12 minutes until the Virginia Department of Transportation decided to extend its yellow time about a second-and-a-half. Once the yellow time was extended, the problem virtually disappeared.

The evidence is clear. Almost no one disagrees that longer yellows are safer. Thats why I offer the following challenge to cities across this nation that currently employ red light cameras: Increase the amount of yellow time you provide motorists and see what happens.

Another second or two of yellow would have very little impact on the smooth flow of traffic, but it has a demonstrated impact on safety. The jurisdictions that say they are only concerned about safety should find the potential loss of millions in revenue acceptable.

I suspect, however, that over time those who accept the challenge will, in fact, go the way of Mesa and begin dropping cameras once they become money-losers. And thats the right option.

Red light cameras are judge, jury and executioner all in one box. And once we start down the road of letting machines do work that should be done by human law enforcement officers, it will be very hard to turn back. Europe started using ticket cameras almost a decade before we did. Already in downtown London, theres a camera on every intersection that tracks who enters the city and when, and where theyre going. You cant go anywhere without Big Brother watching.

Lets try a proven solution to intersection problems instead of resorting to machines that are unfair, unsafe and un-American.


Rep. Dick Armey, Texas Republican, is majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives.

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