“These Cameras Are Not a Safety Tool . . .”: NMA E-Newsletter #556

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety took a page out of its own book, and that of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), by issuing a recent report on red-light running with a title designed to send the media into a frenzy. “Red Light Running Deaths Hit 10 Year High” did exactly that.

While it is important to shine a light on intersection safety and identify causes for accidents and fatalities, AAA Foundation used the opportunity to include an open endorsement of photo enforcement: “Proper implementation of red-light cameras helps to ensure drivers’ safety and trust . . .” Its data, per Table 1 of the report, do not differentiate fatalities at intersections with and without red-light cameras to substantiate that claim.

Rather, AAA Foundation refers to IIHS automated-enforcement studies. We have pointed out serious concerns with those findings before, not to mention raising questions about some of IIHS’s methodologies.

Just a few days after the release of the AAA Foundation report, a New York State traffic engineer posted some different perspectives about red-light cameras and intersection safety on the Institute of Transportation Engineers Member Forum:

These cameras are not a safety tool the way you might expect – at least, not everywhere.  If your experience shows safety improvements, happy to hear it. My local counties, unfortunately, give many people cause to think the cameras are a blatant cash grab. The way the programs are administered makes a huge difference, and it makes life harder for us traffic engineers – the public does not trust that we’re working to make things safer (that’s the ‘royal’ we – my company is not involved in these camera programs).

  • Based on two 3-year studies before-and-after at 100 intersections in one county, camera locations experienced a 60% crash increase after the cameras were installed.  Another study 4 years ago showed 8.5% increases overall, with the highest increases in rear-end and side-swipe crashes. 
  • In addition to the base fine, there is an extra fee tacked on as an “Administrative Fee” which you owe even if you get the ticket dismissed.  These fees count as revenue in the annual operating budgets: tens of millions of dollars each year net revenue. 
  • In one county, a legislator who says there is support to maintain the red light camera program is concerned with cameras located in low-income neighborhoods “where people can’t afford to pay”. 
  • The fines are exactly the same whether you blast through a red at 70 mph ten seconds into the cross street green, or if you only stop for 0.5 seconds before a right on red, or if you miss the yellow/red change during the first 1 second of the all-red when there is no one in danger, or if you stop but you are 12″ past the stop line (also not putting anyone in danger). The fine structure is not at all in line with the relative danger being posed.

People hear “red light running” and assume every violation is Case #1. But that’s not the majority of violations. People get tickets for not counting Mississippi’s before turning right on red, or stopping a few inches past the stop line. So the next time, they cause a crash by slamming on their brakes at the start of the yellow, which is not the desired behavior.

Common sense says that red-light cameras have never prevented an intersection accident or an instance of red-light running in the moment. The cameras are silent sentinels. It is always interesting when the camera companies release a montage of video clips showing horrific intersection collisions taken by their cameras, actually proving the impotence of the devices from a safety standpoint.

As studies like the one released by Case Western Reserve last year point out, the presence of red-light cameras typically causes an increase in accidents because drivers, suddenly aware of the ticketing potential of automated enforcement, tend to hit their brakes hard which often results in more accidents (of the rear-end variety) than if no cameras were present.

A rise in intersection fatalities between 2008 and 2017 more than likely signals an increase in driver distractions. Those, too, cannot be solved by the presence of red-light cameras which have proven to be a dangerous distraction on their own.

A Postscript

A transportation planning and engineering services consultant responded on the ITE Forum to the NY traffic engineer’s post just before we went to publication with this e-newsletter. His comments are noteworthy:

“Here are a few ZEROs to go along with red light running as a Vision Zero strategy. Safety is the goal. We should be debating how to use tools effectively – yet the debate heads toward entrapment, cash grab and privacy issues. From my perspective we need to equally empathize with these topics and be clear from our perspective there should be: 

ZERO entrapment
ZERO undue enrichment
ZERO privacy invasion 

These are tough things to achieve …. just as Vision Zero is. Listening to our community’s needs is critical to success. Given the cost of red light running installations – we should post them and make it clear to drivers we are going to ticket you if you run a red light or you accelerate through a light excessively to the speed limit. As has been mentioned – we will soon have thoroughly vetted clearance phase guidance that can be applied uniformly. 

People know this is not acceptable behavior. Agencies who take on the responsibilities of such enforcement should know – one occurrence of undue enrichment or privacy invasion will be socially broadcast as urban myth comprehensively and erode the value of countermeasures that can produce safety benefits. The standard is high with these ZEROs and we need to collaborate with our partners to make sure we do not violate them under the name of Vision Zero.”

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