The Capital (Annapolis, MD)
April 13, 2006 Thursday
Psychology: Should I stay or should I go?
Scott Smith

Bob was going the speed limit as he drove south on Ritchie Highway and approached its intersection with Arnold Road. As luck would have it, the traffic light turned yellow just as he reached “The Spot.” Most experienced drivers are familiar with “The Spot” – that place on the road just before a traffic light where it would be very difficult to stop without braking hard, while continuing on would risk passing under a yellow-turning-to-red signal. Bob’s only thought at that second mirrored the words from the famous Clash song, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”

Bob knew there was a red light camera installed to monitor traffic at the familiar intersection. Therefore, he decided to brake hard and “stay” when he saw the yellow light to make sure that he did not get hit with a hefty fine for running a red light. Consequently, the driver behind him also had to brake exceptionally hard in order to narrowly avoid a collision with Bob.

Until the digital traffic control age descended upon us, this predicament at traffic lights was less of a problem. Going through a stale yellow light was not usually a big risk since, presumably, the light in the other direction had not yet turned green and no traffic should be moving. But all of that has apparently changed with the installation of red light cameras, which are now euphemistically being called “safety cameras” by the companies that profit from them.

Bob’s near miss illustrates one of the unintended consequences of new traffic monitoring technology. These cameras were installed without studying the possible psychological impact they might have upon drivers. And now that they’ve generated millions of dollars of income for the companies and the state, it seems their use may be more about making money than public safety.

There seems to be little or no convincing evidence that accident rates have decreased at monitored intersections. In fact, a recent review of red light cameras by The Capital found that the rate of rear-end wrecks went up nearly 40 percent in the year the cameras were initially installed. Similar reports seem to be coming in from states all over the country,leading a spokesman for the National Motorists Association to state, “These devices don’t increase safety at all.”

When the psychology of people’s reactions to the cameras is considered, the findings of increased accidents aren’t really surprising. The dilemma is not unlike other life situations in which people feel compelled to try to avoid negative events. How would one expect people to react when faced with an intersection that offers a seemingly quick yellow light and a camera that can automatically leverage a hefty fine on them? The answer seems obvious: They will do almost anything to avoid being caught by the camera’s lens.

Of course, the only way to avoid a monitored intersection’s sting is to make certain that you are nowhere near the camera’s coverage zone when the light turns red. In order for this to happen, especially if you are in “The Spot” like Bob was, you have to either accelerate rapidly to try to clear the intersection or you have to stop suddenly to avoid entering the intersection at all. Both of these sudden actions are potentially dangerous and contrary to basic driver’s education which teaches us that sudden moves cause accidents. Thus, “safety cameras” would seem inclined to psychologically intimidate drivers and propel them toward danger rather than protecting them.

Presumably installed with the good intentions of stopping red light runners who can cause horrific accidents, the quick yellow light and flash of the camera seems more intent on catching those unfortunate people who have hit “The Spot.” While it is not clear whether the yellow lights have been shortened, drivers who have observed those intersections before and after camera installation swear that it is now a quicker light. Apparently, the State Highway Administration isn’t saying either way. If the cameras were really about safety and not making money, it would seem that the yellow lights would be lengthened in order to sort out innocent drivers caught in “The Spot” from those conspicuously running red lights.

It also would make sense to use a sign to warn people that they are approaching a monitored intersection. That would help them prepare psychologically for the situation and perhaps approach the light more safely. To operate these cameras at unmarked intersections implies that the real goal is to “catch” people rather than to slow them down or stop them from running red lights.

At a time when some people are concerned about government intrusion in our lives, it is interesting that as a population we seem passive about technological monitoring in our own communities. At this point, the evidence appears to indicate that our government and private companies are profiting at our expense from a traffic surveillance program which does not appear to increase safety, but may in fact put us at greater risk. From a psychological perspective, the surveillance may unintentionally encourage unsafe driving practices.

Red light cameras certainly put a whole new twist on whether you should “stay or go” and that may be something worth thinking about before you next get behind the wheel. —

Dr. Scott E. Smith is a licensed clinical psychologist with Spectrum Behavioral Health in Annapolis and Arnold. For services or ideas regarding this column, call 410-757-2077 or write to 1509 Ritchie Highway, Suite F, Arnold, MD 21012.