The Weekly Standard web site had a 5 part investigative report on red light cameras. This is one of the most extensive and detailed reports on this topic.
Part 1: Inside the District’s Red Lights
Red-light cameras and photo radar are all over Washington–and coming to a city near you. The science behind them is bad and the police are using them to make money, not save lives. It’s much worse than you thought.
Part 2: The Yellow Menace
The police could make intersections safer with longer yellow lights. But the city wouldn’t make any money that way.
Part 3: The Safety Myth
Photo-radar cameras are designed to catch speeders and save lives. Only, there’s not much evidence that the speed limit is any safer.
Part 4: Getting Rear-Ended by the Law
Red-light cameras actually cause an increase in rear-end accidents. The pro-camera forces know this and are trying to keep you from seeing the data.
Part 5: Fighting the Good Fight
Camera advocates claim that most people like red-light cameras, but citizens across the country are taking to the barricades against them.
A 5-part series reprinted from the Weekly Standard, written by Matt Labash 04/01/2002
OVER THE LAST DECADE, the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department has become a joke even sadder than the city’s man-eating potholes or crack-smoking mayors. Various reports have them losing seven percent of their police cars, failing to close one-third of their homicide investigations, and towing legally parked cars, then failing to tell citizens the whereabouts of their vehicles. But according to the department’s propagandists, if D.C. residents have a “principal public safety” concern–a concern greater than arson, auto theft, robbery, sexual assault, and homicide, all of which have risen since 1999–it is traffic safety. And if there is any traffic safety concern that concerns D.C. residents most–more than, say, drunk driving–it is speeding and red-light running. And here, the citizens are in luck. Because the D.C. police are on the case. Sort of. Actually, their automated enforcement technology is on the case.
To those not familiar with automated enforcement technology, give it time–you will be. Not only has this technology, used in Europe for decades, arrived in this country, but it is reaping millions of dollars in revenue for municipalities in the baldest cash grab by cities since they sued gun manufacturers for making guns that shoot people. As their respective names suggest, red-light cameras and photo radar are designed to photograph motorists who enter intersections after the light turns red or who speed above a certain threshold.
While systems vary according to municipality and contractor, motorists can expect to receive a photo of themselves committing the infraction, which is printed on a traffic citation they receive in the mail. Fines range from $30 for driving up to 10 mph over the speed limit in the District, to $271 for running a red light in California. In some states, license points are assessed, making automated enforcement the gift that keeps on giving in the form of higher insurance premiums.
The cities, naturally, are wary of being called greedheads. In D.C., which has most enthusiastically embraced the technology, with its 39 red-light cameras and 6 photo radar units, champions like Police Chief Charles Ramsey have said, “It isn’t about revenue making. It’s about saving lives.” To prove it, the department’s website displays gauzy pictures of children. When anybody suggests otherwise, Ramsey quickly returns fire. After the Washington Times denounced the use of photo radar as a Gestapo tactic, Ramsey wrote a spleen-venting letter to the editor, informing the paper that he sensitizes his officers by taking them to the Holocaust Museum.
To measure Ramsey’s claim that the technology isn’t about generating revenue–despite the District’s collecting $15,569,721 in fines after two and a half years of red light camera use–I go on a ride-along, or rather, a sit-along, with D.C. police. On a muggy August morning, during the sleepy off-time just after rush hour, I lounge in an unmarked Crown Victoria in Northeast D.C. with Sgt. James McCoy and Officer D.J. Cephas. The car is one of five mobile photo radar units currently sweeping the city, along with one stationary unmanned unit. While red-light cameras are unmanned, permanently posted like all-seeing birdhouses at intersections, photo radar can either be shuttled around in police cars or stationed solo, without human supervision. (The District has promised their red-light cameras will also double as photo radar units, meaning motorists will eventually be dinged for clearing an intersection too fast, or for not clearing it fast enough.)
The space where the vehicle’s shotgun seat used to be is now occupied by a giant T-bar bolted to the floor, on which is mounted a Gatso Radar 24 camera control unit, a data memory card, and all manner of technical doodads. With all their Doppler radar talk, the officers sound like meteorologists with guns. But their police car is not really a police car in any conventional sense. “It doesn’t have any police equipment,” explains McCoy, “no siren, no police radio.”
In fact, these working cops aren’t technically working cops. They’re off-duty cops, getting paid overtime that is covered by the city’s camera contractor, Lockheed Martin IMS. At the time of my outing, Lockheed is responsible for maintaining the equipment, processing the data, and sending out the citations–which entitles them to $32.50 out of every $75 red-light-camera ticket and $29 of every photo-radar ticket. (Since then, Lockheed sold their national automated enforcement business to Affiliated Computer Services in Dallas, with the same profit arrangement applying.) Proponents of the system like to point out that the whole operation doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime. Cynics could contend that it’s cost taxpayers and commuters quite a few dimes. As of February 2002, D.C.’s red-light camera not only collected over $15 million since August of 1999, but its photo radar program, which has only been in operation for seven months, has already netted the District a cool $9,041,295.
Other than the missing seat and police equipment, Sgt. McCoy finds that these cars “have all the amenities–the lumbar controls, a stereo with cassette player–a lot of things we don’t have in a police car.” Comfort is, after all, paramount in a job that requires you to do almost nothing. The officer’s only real task is to aim the radar, which shoots a 5 degree-wide, 22 ft.-high beam across the street that bounces off passing cars, back to a slotted wave-guide antenna triggering the camera. Police additionally set a speed threshold–today’s will net only people going at least 11 mph over the speed limit (though the officers are unclear whether the speed limit is 25 or 30 mph at our location). After these preliminaries, the only remaining concern is making sure you have enough coffee to wash down your bearclaw.
McCoy says conventional traffic patrolling is labor intensive, forcing officers to pull people over, “run their names, so on and so forth.” Photo radar, he says, is quite the opposite. “You come in, set it up, sit back, read a magazine.” When the camera begins its work, Officer Cephas erupts in dark laughter. Though today the equipment is aimed only at receding traffic, Cephas offers, “This thing can get everybody going in both directions.” “Ca-Chzzzt! Ca-Chzzzt!” he says, mimicking the whirring of the camera, which sounds like a horde of paparazzi covering a movie premiere.
When asked if they would pull over most of the people the camera is shooting, the officers say no. “Thing is,” says Cephas, “the speed limit’s 25, but people just constantly drive with the flow of traffic.” “We know everybody drives over the speed limit,” adds McCoy, “so you have some tolerance.” At that moment, a fellow officer whizzes by, waving. “No discrimination here,” says McCoy pointing to the camera, which likely just captured their colleague racking up a citation. While emergency vehicles are supposed to be exempt from paying fines, even ambulance drivers and fire trucks get tickets. (The Washington Times recently reported that a raft of tickets earned by D.C. police has actually slowed their response time on calls.) “If George Bush comes through here,” laughs Cephas, “he’s gonna get it too.”
After only half an hour, the camera has clicked pictures that could result in 100 citations, though today is the last day of a month-long warning period (fines won’t be issued for another week). McCoy says it would take a human cop roughly two-and-a-half days of brisk patrolling to generate that many tickets. After such an excursion, one can see Chief Ramsey’s point, that automated enforcement frees up police to carry out other important tasks, such as going on cable television to talk about how they’ve had no breaks in the Chandra Levy case.
Like the film shot by red-light cameras, photo radar film is sent to a processing center run by Lockheed Martin IMS. Though the weapons manufacturer, whose IMS division was the largest automated enforcement vendor in the nation, sold the division to Affiliated Computer Services for $800 million, if Lockheed’s projections hold, ACS will reap $44 million from D.C.-generated tickets by 2004 (the city itself will pull in $117 million). It is at this center that the vendor elves, or “image specialists,” not only develop film, but decide which pictures warrant citations. Internal Lockheed documents reveal that their camera’s success rate can be as low as 42 percent (other vendors fall as low as 33 percent)–meaning that pictures must be tossed for reasons ranging from “data errors” to “clarity of [license] plate.” From there, success rates drop even further. After vendors send out the tickets–which may or may not be subject to police review before being issued, depending on the city–it has been estimated by an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) study that the registered owner of the vehicle–the one ticketed after a vendor matches a plate number to a DMV record–is the actual driver of the car only 72 percent of the time.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, it must be noted, is one of the staunchest advocates of automated enforcement, and views the 72 percent figure as a triumph. To which any reasonable person might ask, what other law enforcement tool snags the wrong guy over one-fourth of the time, and is still considered a success?
Just to recap, consider: A private company is given police power to ticket citizens, has a monetary interest in generating as many tickets as possible, and, despite its low success rate, is often allowed to do so with minimal or no police supervision.
It would seem that a trip to Lockheed IMS’s processing center was in order to watch its employees fulfill their constabulary duties. But when I ask D.C. police spokesman Kevin Morison for a tour, he must check with Lockheed, though the police are purportedly running the operation. A few days later, Morison regretfully informs me that Lockheed said no–“They had privacy concerns.” Morison at least plays at being oblivious to the richness of a vendor’s claiming to be concerned about your privacy after taking a picture of your car and in some instances whoever’s in your car, tapping into your DMV records, levying a fine against you, then mailing the whole care package to your house (in Italy, a senator’s marriage faltered when his wife spotted his mistress in a photo radar citation).
But Morison is not completely unhelpful. He says that during the first eight days of photo radar use last August, 13,844 highway motorists and 9,574 motorists in residential areas were photographed for potential citations–the equivalent of 4 percent of D.C.’s entire population. To put that in perspective, D.C. police issued only 10,000 speeding tickets in all of 2000. Considering that citations can run up to $200 a throw, citizens might be forgiven any cynicism regarding Chief Ramsey’s statement that automated enforcement “isn’t about revenue making, it’s about saving lives.”
OF ALL THE PEOPLE to curse for automated enforcement technology, the foremost is Maurice Gatsonides, a Dutch race car driver who invented the speed camera in the 1950s. Nicknamed “Gatso”– the future name of the company that exported his technology around the world-Gatsonides engineered the camera to enhance his racing speed. Upon retiring however, he turned the technology on the rest of us, peddling his equipment to law enforcement agencies. By the time Gatsonides died in 1998, descending to the hottest part of Hell in the imaginations of many motorists, his technology had already taken hold in Europe.
The last several years, however, have seen an exponential boom in this country. The Department of Transportation estimates that red light cameras are now being used in 30 cities in 19 states (11 states have banned them). And although 75 countries use the more controversial photo radar, the United States reports approximately 17 such programs (7 out of 10 additional test programs were discontinued–often because of public ill-will). All of the current photo radar programs are being run west of the Mississippi, with the exception of D.C., whose example is encouraging East Coast police departments to eagerly consider it.
New York became the first city in this country to permanently operate red light cameras in 1993. Since then, the argument against them has been a fairly obvious one. Typically, some local columnist storms the barricades clutching his dog-eared Orwell or Huxley, screeching about an erosion of liberties, the government threatening our privacy, and on and on. To which one can almost feel readers stifling a collective yawn. Even if Americans should be concerned about the death-by-a-thousand-cuts privacy is suffering with spooky surveillance technologies like biometric face scanning, most long ago resigned themselves to being surveilled every time they gas their cars or buy Slim Jims at 7-Eleven. To some, automated enforcement technology is just a natural progression.
But recently the debate has shifted to address less abstract issues such as: Does the technology even work? Does it reduce accidents and safety risks, or cause more of its own? Are cities overstating a threat, overselling a technology, and undercutting more important safety countermeasures to gouge revenues out of their citizens? Rep. Dick Armey’s answer to those questions was made abundantly clear in his recent report, titled–with jackhammer subtlety–“The Red Light Camera Scam.”
Released last May, the report was met with ridicule by editorialists, many of whom suffer from the Armey Effect, dictating that if the relatively unpopular congressman is against something, they should be for it. What stretched the credulity of most critics was the implied assertion that cities were reducing their yellow-light intervals in order to entrap motorists with red light cameras–or “scameras,” as detractors now call them. “You’re full of it, sir,” was one of the punditocracy’s gentler admonitions.
But while critics were busy dismantling the most incendiary and least supportable charge in Armey’s report, they missed a much more important point. Cities don’t need to reduce yellow-light times to generate revenue, they merely have to plant cameras at intersections where short amber times foster red-light running. It’s a more subtle assertion, but one that Armey’s chief researcher, Richard Diamond, scrupulously documents. Study after study has shown that increasing yellow light intervals (the least expensive, if not most profitable, engineering fix) reduces the likelihood of motorist indecision in what engineers call “the dilemma zone”–the second or so it takes to react when encountering a changing light.
Historically, amber times have been set between three and six seconds, depending on a host of variables from the posted speed at an intersection to the grade of its approach.
The formula for these standards comes from a hodgepodge of recommendations by the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) and the Federal Highway Administration’s “Manual on Traffic Control Devices.” To give just an inkling of how things have changed over the years, in the mid ’70s, the Institute of Transportation Engineers recommended a yellow time long enough to factor in reaction time plus stopping time plus “clearance time,” or the time it takes to get through an intersection.
But by the late ’90s, that standard had been steadily eroded by altogether shaving off clearance time, lowering yellow light intervals by as much as a third, which often leaves the motorist stranded in the dilemma zone. To make matters worse, the ITE, which in 1985 was still recommending yellow lights be lengthened to help clear intersections, now, with the advent of red light cameras, offers that “enforcement can be used instead.”
The real-world translation here is that according to 1976 practices, an 80-foot-wide intersection with a 35 mph approach on a 2.6 percent downhill grade would warrant a five-second yellow light interval. But according to 1999 formulas, it is considered acceptable to allot the same intersection a 4 second interval. A second might not seem like much. Consider, however, that even automated-enforcement cheerleader Richard Retting of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety concedes that yellow-light increases decrease the chance of red-light running incidents. Likewise, Retting’s studies show that of drivers classified as “red light runners,” 80 percent enter an intersection less than a second after a yellow signal has turned red.
The ITE recommendations, of course, weren’t carved in stone at Mt. Sinai. Rather, they’re published in scarcely read traffic manuals. But increasing yellow-light intervals at problem intersections is certainly easier, if not more profitable, than starting red light camera programs. Extending yellow times has proven successful, even if cities don’t publicize it. In San Diego, where even the police chief was caught admitting that at many red-light-camera intersections, accidents have increased, the nation’s bloodiest skirmish over red-light cameras has played itself out in court, revealing all sorts of city/contractor chicanery. There, lawyers representing motorists found the city planting a red-light camera at an intersection where no accidents had occurred for years. But that didn’t stop the camera from generating 2,000 citations per month, until engineers realized the yellow light was more than a second too short. When they increased it, the number of citations dropped to fewer than 300 per month.
Local police departments that employ automated technology, of course, perpetually stress that their sole concern is reducing accidents. It’s curious, then, what happens when you start checking just what steps they have taken to do so. When I asked the District of Columbia’s Department of Public Works for a list of yellow-light times at camera intersections, almost all reported a 4-second interval. But ITE standards permit extending yellow lights up to 6 seconds. Keeping in mind that these are supposed to be trouble spots, I inquired about the last time these intervals had been changed. “Years and years ago, maybe never,” one employee said. Likewise, though cities are typically coached by contractors to place cameras at heavy-volume intersections (generating more tickets), statistics from the same office reveal a noticeable shortage of red-light cameras at the city’s most dangerous intersections. Of the top 10 high-crash intersections for the two years that preceded the District’s installation of 39 cameras in 1999, the 1997 figures show four of the top 10 (including 2 of the top 3) did not warrant red-light cameras (even though one of them accounted for two of the only three reported deaths). Additionally, 7 of the top 10 high-crash intersections for 1998 didn’t rate cameras–even though they were installed just a year later.
In other cities, the percentages are even worse. In Charlotte, North Carolina, WBTV found their safety conscious officials failed to install cameras at 23 of the highest-crash intersections. And in San Diego, the Red Light Camera Defense Team, a consortium of pro bono lawyers representing motorists against the city found that 12 of the 19 red-light camera intersections had three-second yellow intervals, and that Lockheed Martin IMS–our old friends from D.C.–had sought out intersections with high traffic volume, short yellow cycles, and downhill approaches–the kinds of intersections that citation-happy police officers used to call “cherry ponds” or “duck patches.” What the lawyers didn’t find was any evidence supporting officials’ claims that their program, like D.C.’s and Charlotte’s before it, was “about safety.” Not a single one of the city’s 19 cameras was operating at one of its highest-accident sites.
SAFETY IS, of course, the flimsily constructed edifice upon which the entire argument for automated enforcement rests. But to get at the facts, one must wade through the myths, which could take years, and in some cases has. Greg Mauz, a Delray Beach-based activist with the National Motorists Association, sleeps, eats, and breathes automated traffic enforcement. Two years ago, he quit his job as a truck driver, convinced his loan-officer wife to fund his costly habit, and holed up for study until he became a one-man anti-camera-enforcement demolition crew.
Subsequently, Mauz has emerged with a 96-page book entitled “Camera Enforcement: Developing the Factual Picture.” The book, or rather, the booklet–it’s bound with a red plastic spiral Mauz got on the cheap at Office Depot–is, like Greg, a tad overheated. But otherwise, it is a stinging indictment, a tightly constructed hanging brief that leaves no canard intact. (You can order it by calling Greg at his house–561.243.0920. Seriously.)
On the phone, Greg speaks in bellowing, stentorian pronouncements, like an angry prophet who has spent too many years in the wilderness and who’s badly in need of an audience. His delivery is stream-of-consciousness, studded with the statistical accident arcana and other secret knowledge that comes from too many years of reading traffic manuals. Places like the Insurance Institute on Highway Safety, Mauz says, are “hoodwinking the public on every part of this issue. When they promote a so-called safety program, they exaggerate the problem to solve it.” Among Mauz’s more counterintuitive assertions are that speed limits are chronically set too low, camera enforcement causes accidents, and the false security that cameras afford keeps police officers from pulling truly dangerous drivers–such as drunks–off the road. “Like I said to some politician the other day,” rails Mauz, “‘If you were dying of a heart attack, would you want a doctor with a defibrillator to save you, or would you want somebody snapping a picture of the situation?'”
After years of droning jeremiads from safety mavens who preach that speed kills, Mauz’s offerings might sound just shy of daffy. But he has a secret weapon he breaks out in debate: the government’s own data. On Mauz’s recommendation, I pick up a copy of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s “Traffic Safety Facts 1999,” the latest year for which crash data and fatality analysis are accumulated. NHTSA, it should be noted, has endorsed automated traffic enforcement. And the data it collects have some inherent flaws, since the agency often lists several factors in an accident that, when pigeon-holed in a database, can skew some categories. For instance, if a motorist wrecks his car while drinking a tumbler-full of bourbon, making fondue, and driving 10 miles over the speed limit, that could very well get classified as a speed-related accident. (Even so, Car and Driver has noted that according to NHTSA’s data, only 3.1 percent of fatal crashes list speed as the only related factor.)
That said, NHTSA’s databases are the best we have. Automated-enforcement boosters cut and paste from its findings all the time, causing one NHTSA spokesperson to allow, “People extrapolate from our statistics, but we don’t stand behind them. Scientifically speaking, we don’t have accurate statistics on red-light running based on our databases.” This is a fairly significant admission, since camera advocates love to depict speeding and red-light-running “epidemics,” with old ladies being mowed down in crosswalks and children being slaughtered like lambs by runaway lead-foots.
Even if it’s not much of a beach read, “Traffic Safety Facts” tells a fascinating tale not often told by these same people–namely, the truth. While safety Cassandras love to say that accidents increased from 1992 to 1996, they conveniently select those years as bookends since 1992 was an aberrantly low-accident year, and in 1996 accidents were nearly as high as they’ve ever been. Since 1996, however, accidents have declined every year, and when one factors in more motorists driving longer hours, the rate of involvement in accidents is actually lower than it was in 1992.
In general, fatal crashes have declined every year since 1992, and injury crashes have declined every year since 1988. Fatality rates are at an all-time low, with a mere 1.5 for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled. If there was ever a safer time to drive a car than 1999, it was probably 2000–though those statistics are not yet processed. No matter, says the camera enforcement crowd–speeders and red-light runners are causing the bulk of havoc on our roads.
Except that they’re not. According to NHTSA, 38 percent of all fatal crashes involve alcohol, and drunk drivers should logically be the most enthusiastic boosters of camera enforcement–since a red-light-camera-monitored intersection ensures no cops will be present. From the drunk’s point of view, a red-light citation in the mail beats a DWI arrest. NHTSA’s data show that only 21 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes had previous speeding convictions, while 57.3 percent had no driving convictions of any kind. This appears to buttress photo radar opponents’ argument that speeding doesn’t kill people, bad driving does.
Among the “Related Factors for Drivers Involved in Fatal Crashes,” speeding and red-light running aren’t even the league leaders. “Failure to keep in proper lane or running off the road” is by far the top accident-generator, listed as a factor in 30 percent of all fatal accidents. Inattentiveness (6.9 percent) and operating a vehicle in a careless or negligent manner (5.3 percent) both rank higher than red-light running, which is grouped with failing to obey traffic signals, signs, or officers, at a scant 5 percent.
In the same table, speeding ranks a distant second to the leader, listed as a factor in 19.7 percent of fatal crashes, though that figure–not even one-fifth of all fatal accidents–covers not just those who are exceeding the speed limit, but also those who are “driving too fast for conditions” (a problem photo radar doesn’t address). While it’s certainly more dangerous to have an accident at higher speed, NHTSA’s data suggest speed alone doesn’t account for most accidents. If it did, why would over one fourth of all crashes (26.1 percent) occur when cars are going less than 30 mph and 77 percent less than 50 mph? By contrast, driving 60 mph or higher accounts for a paltry 8.1 percent of all accidents.
Mauz’s contention that speed limits are too low (which affects the number of photo-radar citations as well as formulas for yellow-light intervals) isn’t just the fanciful rambling of an underemployed traffic researcher. It is backed, albeit quietly, by no less an authority than the Federal Highway Administration. During the last decade, one FHWA study confirmed what any common-sense driver knows: Motorists, as the engineers like to say, drive the geometrics of the road. That is, they find the natural speed for a road and stick with it–regardless of the speed limit. This is why, if you conduct an unscientific experiment driving 55 mph on your local open stretch of highway, you will be passed by over two-thirds of your fellow motorists.
But the FHWA conducted a scientific experiment over a five-year period, and found that the 85th percentile speed–or the speed under which 85 percent of drivers travel–changed no more than 1 to 2 mph even when the speed limit changed 15 mph. In another study, the same engineers–one of whom was Dr. Samuel Tignor, who just retired as the FHWA’s technical director for safety and research development–found that “current speed limits are set too low to be accepted as reasonable by the vast majority of drivers. Only about 1 in 10 speed zones has better than 50 percent compliance. The posted speeds make technical violators out of motorists driving at reasonable and safe speeds.”
The researchers concluded that most speed zones were posted 15 mph below the “maximum safe speed,” and suggested that increasing speed limits would help increase compliance and target only the most dangerous drivers–far from the credo of automated enforcement, which has been known to nab everyone from low-level speeders to funeral processions. Most people, naturally, have never heard of these studies, which Dr. Tignor says is no accident. Though the safety-conscious FHWA took no issue with the research’s conclusions, says Tignor, “It was more of an issue of how shall we toot our horn or should we not toot it relative to this controversial area. They didn’t really toot it.”
IF THE pro-camera forces don’t have the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s stats, the Federal Highway Administration’s research, or the truth on their side, they have something better: the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s senior transportation engineer and lead red-light-camera proponent, Richard Retting. Retting is a near ubiquitous presence in the debate. Statistics floated by his Institute are unblinkingly regurgitated by journalists, even if no one notices, for instance, that they have variously put the number of annual red-light-running fatalities at 750, 800, or 850 depending on which day you catch them.
The fact that Retting is considered the scientific authority on automated enforcement drives people like Greg Mauz (author of “Camera Enforcement: Developing the Factual Picture”) around the bend, since the Institute is “wholly supported,” as its literature explains, by 79 auto insurance companies. Taking Retting’s word on the safety benefits of camera enforcement, say the critics, is a bit like trusting the Tobacco Institute that smoking increases lung capacity.
While most states don’t yet assess driver’s license points for automated infractions, plenty are toying with the idea, and a few, like California and Arizona, actually do. The insurance industry, then, has a financial stake in seeing as many photo tickets issued as possible, since speeding and red-light infractions allow insurance companies to bleed their customers with higher premiums for the next three to five years. “It’s free money,” says Mauz.
During a House Transportation subcommittee hearing on red-light cameras last July, I run into Richard Retting. In an obvious “screw-you” by his bete noire Dick Armey, who has engineered the hearing, Retting has conspicuously not been asked to testify. He seems a little hurt, though he takes a stab at self-deprecation, joking that Armey called him the “father of the Red Light Camera movement,” and he’s tempted “to ask for a paternity test.” Before becoming a researcher for the insurance industry, Retting made his bones as Highway Safety Director for the New York City Department of Transportation, where he picked up the coveted Volvo Traffic Safety Award.
When not sounding off about the benefits of roundabouts or the evils of poorly designed crosswalks, Retting has made red-light cameras a near full-time pursuit. Other than Retting’s, there have been few studies on red-light cameras. The most rigorous was a 1995 study conducted by the Australian Road Research Board which examined red-light-camera intersection accidents for the five years before and after the cameras were installed. The report concluded–unpopularly with camera manufacturers and police departments–that “there has been no demonstrated value” of the red-light camera “as an effective countermeasure.”
The Australian report, however, is rarely cited. Its most controversial finding, ironically, is one Retting grudgingly concedes–that red-light-camera intersections tend to see increases in rear-end accidents from people slamming on their brakes to avoid being ticketed. Oddly enough, most of the anti-camera forces’ best arguments are buried deep in the bowels of Retting’s own studies. While those who skim his conclusions to justify camera enforcement wouldn’t know it, over the years Retting has asserted that too little yellow time causes people to run red lights inadvertently, that nearly four-fifths of red-light runners do so less than a second after the light changes, that over one-third of red-light running incidents are alcohol related, and that one-fourth of the people cited by the cameras aren’t driving during the infraction.
The capstone of Retting’s work, however, is a pair of reports known as “The Oxnard studies.” Monitoring the effects of red-light cameras in Oxnard, California, in 1997, Retting compared camera and non-camera sites. He concluded that the number of red-light-running incidents was reduced at nine camera sites by anywhere from 22 to 62 percent–a huge shot in the arm to camera boosters. The only hitch was, during the same period, his three non-camera sites performed even better, with decreases in violations on average 10 percent greater than at the camera sites.
For many researchers, this might seem problematic. But not for Retting, who theorized that the “statistically insignificant” difference between the sites was due to “spillover effect”–that is, the red-light cameras caused reductions at non-camera sites. Score one for automated enforcement! The fact that the non-camera intersections outperformed the camera intersections for what might have been any variety of reasons (public education, police presence at other intersections, etc.) didn’t alter Retting’s conclusion. He declared victory and left town, saying that further study of violations in Oxnard would be pointless since publicity resulting from the state’s more than doubling the fine for running a red light, from $104 to $270, would influence results.
In April 2001, Retting introduced the second of his Oxnard studies, this time dealing with crash effects at red-light camera intersections. As could be expected, Retting concluded that red-light cameras “reduce the risk of motor vehicle crashes, particularly injury crashes.” In fact, he extrapolated, even though cameras were used on only 2 percent of the approaches to the city’s intersections, there were crash reductions citywide. (More spillover effect!)
But one doesn’t have to review the report all that closely to uncover significant problems. First, Retting admits that the crash data he studied “did not contain sufficient detail to identify crashes that were specifically [caused by] red light running.” Some might consider that a fatal shortcoming in a study that purports to examine red-light-running crashes. Next, he discloses that he didn’t study crashes at the 11 red-light-camera intersections, but rather at all intersections, since “prior research documents” a large “spillover effect.” (The prior research, of course, being his.)
Most interesting, Retting picked three control cities miles away from Oxnard that were in no danger of getting splattered by “spillover effect.” While a table in Retting’s report shows crashes at all signalized intersections in Oxnard decreasing 5.4 percent, two of his non-camera-enforced control cities also saw crashes decline, with camera-free Santa Barbara decreasing by 10.2 percent. How does Retting explain this? He doesn’t. Perhaps most duplicitously, he claims that during the time of the study, “no other comprehensive traffic safety programs,” were implemented in Oxnard that could account for the reductions. Unless, you count California more than doubling its penalty for running red lights (which gave Retting sufficient cause to discontinue his first study).
But the bad news for Retting doesn’t end there. Curious about some of Retting’s crash conclusions, the National Motorists Association’s Jim Kadison secured accident data for the red-light-camera intersections Retting used in his latest Oxnard report. Retting had estimated that the use of red-light cameras had resulted in a tiny 3 percent increase in rear-enders at all signalized intersections. But after expanding the definition of an intersection to include 100 feet into the approaches, where rear-end accidents would logically occur, Kadison found that during the time of Retting’s study, rear-end crashes at red-light camera intersections increased from 18 (before installation) to 156, for a total rear-end accident increase of 767 percent.
When I called Retting to needle him about the inconsistencies in his studies, he grew peevish. “The studies speak for themselves. . . . You can look at it any way you like, I have nothing to apologize for.” Somehow, he seemed to discount the criticism, since I was not at his “professional level” and had no grasp of logistic regression models. “If you don’t have the ability to appreciate the logistic regression model,” he condescended, “it’s really a waste of time.” Perhaps so. But I can appreciate Greg Mauz’s assessment of Retting’s reports: “Swiss cheese doesn’t have as many holes.”
Retting, to be sure, isn’t the only fuzzy mathematician in the automated enforcement arena. Police departments, who are coached by their contractors to preach the safety gospel every chance they get, tend to advertise success by displaying the declines in violations, while failing to produce numbers that prove cameras reduce accidents. When I called the D.C. police for accident statistics, spokesman Kevin Morison said, “We don’t have comprehensive data on accidents by intersection at this point.” He then referred me to Lockheed Martin IMS, whose spokesman, Mark Maddox, proceeded to refer me back to the D.C. police. When I told him the police had referred me to him, he sniffed, “Obviously the numbers speak for themselves.” Maybe they would, if we knew what they were, I said. “We’re not in the accident monitoring business,” Maddox explained. “We don’t have that ability, no.” Odd that a company whose raison d’etre is supposedly reducing accidents has no way of knowing if accidents are being reduced.
One police department that does put out specific numbers is Howard County, Maryland. Officers from this wealthy suburb of Baltimore are among the red-light camera’s shiniest, happiest propagandists, generally depicted by journalists as running a model program. At a congressional hearing last summer, they were automated enforcement’s star witnesses. Wearing their gold-braided dress blues and wielding their Power Point displays, they proceeded to declare their three-year-old red-light camera program an unqualified success, boasting a reduction in collisions of between 18 percent and 44 percent at every intersection where a camera had been installed.
The statistics were impressive. Still, confused as to the time periods being monitored, I called Lt. Glenn Hansen to ask for clarification. “You’re right, it’s confusing,” said the media-friendly Hansen, who runs their program. “You’re a writer, maybe you can give us advice on how to do better in the future.” It turns out Hansen had no idea what the time periods were either, except that the times measured before and after installation of the camera were equal. But when I obtained accident statistics for all the county-road intersections where cameras had been placed, the numbers didn’t square with the ones presented at the congressional hearing.
The cameras were installed in 1998. Between the years 1997 and 2000, accidents increased at 5 of 13 intersections for which Howard County’s Department of Public Works provided statistics. Rear-end accidents increased at 7; they more than doubled at 4, tripled at one, and quintupled at one. All told, the red-light-camera intersections reported a 21 percent increase in rear-end accidents, while total accidents increased 15.9 percent. Figures for all other county intersections also show an increase in accidents, but a smaller one (a 13.4 increase in total accidents and an 8.5 percent increase in rear-end accidents).
BY NOW, it should be fairly clear that even if numbers don’t lie, the same can’t be said for the people who use them. All that is left are the ugly particulars, the tales of woe and dread, of inconvenience and larceny, of the mistrust that has arisen between municipalities and the citizens they gouge with red-light cameras and photo radar. While the cities’ most common refrain is that the majority of the public supports the technology, the public sure has a bizarre way of showing it.
Across the United States and Canada–where two provincial elections have swung for politicians promising to scrap local photo radar programs–citizens have made it clear why the supposedly beloved technology is installed inside bullet-proof casings. In Anchorage, photo radar operators were pelted with water balloons before cameras were finally banned. In Denver, police thought somebody fired on their photo radar van, though the projectile turned out just to be a rock. Elsewhere, camera units have been smeared with lubricant, pulled out of the ground with tow chains, and rammed by automobiles. In Paradise Valley, Arizona, where the city council once contemplated shooting motorists with photo radar cameras concealed in cactuses, one civic-minded citizen decided to shoot back, emptying 30 rounds of bullets into two photo radar units.
While some citizens suffer camera injustices in silence (a former Alberta resident had been dead for two months when Calgary police insisted their cameras caught him speeding), others become so outraged that they go a bit far. When James Nunn was ticketed in Greensboro, North Carolina, for running a red light even though his roommate was driving his car, he was told he could beat the ticket if he ratted out his friend, who would also have to agree to pay. Nunn decided to take the rap, and tried to pay the $50 himself–in pennies. “They wouldn’t take it, said it wasn’t a specified amount,” grouses Nunn. “I said, ‘oh yes it is,’ I was ready to sit and watch them count it–I even brought a book.” Then there’s wealthy Ottawa businessman Doug Stead, who wasn’t even sure he was driving his company car at the time he got a $100 photo radar ticket. But he is sure he’s going to fight his five-year-old citation all the way to the Supreme Court–and has tried to do so at a cost of $120,000. “The case is like owning a boat,” he says. “It nickels and dimes you to death. But if somebody with resources doesn’t stand up, who will?”
Vendors like Lockheed Martin IMS anticipate a certain amount of public relations blowback, which is why, in internal documents, they warn their customers that “focus must be retained on the core message–increasing public safety.” “In the event that other photo enforcement programs . . . have problems,” the individual community’s success must “be a dominant theme.” A “problem” here could be defined as the one Lockheed had gotten itself into in San Diego. There, it was discovered that the company had surreptitiously moved three underground magnetic sensors that triggered the cameras, causing innocent motorists to get ticketed for running red lights. So foul is the process, that lawyer Arthur Tait and his defense team have convinced a Superior Court judge to rule that “evidence from the red-light cameras will not be admitted” against motorists.
Over in High Point, North Carolina, lawyer Marshall Hurley is trying to make a judge see things similarly, but may have a tougher go of it in what appears to be the most ethically-compromised system in the nation. High Point contracts with Electronic Data Systems, which subcontracts with PEEK Traffic. A big, happy family, the three entities have formed SafeLight. If a High Point citizen wants to appeal a photo ticket, he first has to pay a $50 “bond” (presumption of innocence be damned). But when a motorist heads into traffic adjudication, he meets not a judge or even a lawyer, but rather a college professor, hired to appear disinterested in the outcome. The professors are paid from the funds generated by red-light camera tickets, and the hearings are held not in court, but at SafeLight’s offices, a fact that even a disinterested professor might find interesting.
Back in Washington, I have come to the logical terminus of all this unpleasantness–the coldest, most menacing place on earth, the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles. I pass through a metal detector with a sign warning “Confiscated weapons will not be returned” in order to watch sad-sack motorists try to argue their way out of red-light camera tickets (in some localities, adjudication centers have become so backed up, they’ve had to sub out their hearings). Finding the when or whereabouts of the hearings, however, is no simple matter. The ocher lighting reflecting off ugly formica surfaces long ago calcified the once lifelike frowns of the DMV workers into permanent sneers. Every transaction is a hostile interrogation, with a bewildered customer asking questions of a much craftier DMV worker, practiced in the art of never giving two pieces of information when one will do.
When I ask the Information lady where the automated enforcement hearings are, she tells me to go to The Green Desk. The Green Desk says to go Downstairs. Downstairs says to go Upstairs. Upstairs tells me to check with Information, where the cycle starts anew. Running out of patience and bladder capacity, I go to the restroom. Even here, the layout is ill-planned, with the urinal stationed right in front of the sole bathroom stall, causing a traffic hazard that no six-second yellow light could solve.
Defeated, I return to the office to check out the police department’s website in search of possible court dates. There aren’t any. Instead, there is more useful information. The police have helpfully included a tip sheet on “How to Avoid Con Games and Swindles.” It reads, “Never turn over large sums of cash to anyone, especially a stranger, no matter how promising the deal looks.”
Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.