Wednesday, July 15, 2009

No Surprise: Red Light Camera Motivation Is Revenue, Not Safety. But Are They Dangerous?

We've been told that the reason for red light cameras is to prevent the horrific t-bone accidents that can occur when a driver runs the light. But today, the Chicago Tribune offered this not-so-surprising revelation: the motivation for those red light cameras may have more to do with revenue than safety, and the Parking Ticket Geek is impressed with their work:

. . . according to a fantastic piece of investigative journalism by the Chicago Tribune, many suburban towns are seemingly employing red light cameras for the revenue only, with only a wink and a nod toward the safety aspect of that equation.

This revenue over "safety" concept is not really breaking news to any motorist who has been burned by a red light camera with with an expensive, usually $100, ticket.

Tribune reporters Bob Secter and Jason George, dig much deeper into the facts and numbers behind red light cameras in Illinois, than anyone previously. And the data they uncover shows, in many cases, some towns are choosing intersections more for the amount of revenue they can produce, than for the number of crashes, injuries and deaths the red light cameras were originally intended to prevent.
If the idea that revenue is an overriding priority isn't surprising, the amount of revenue generated by these things probably won't surprise you either. According to Secter and George, the cash machine camera at 25th Avenue and Harrison Street in Bellwood generates $60,000 to $70,000 a month, and that's just that one device. A large number of the violations are not drivers running red lights, but failing to stop completely before making a right turn. The Daily Herald has been investigating this issue for some time, and yesterday, Joseph Ryan and Marni Pyke raised the same question about the purpose of the cameras: Is the purpose reduce accidents or raise revenue?
The focus on right-turn violations and low-crash sites not only calls into question the motive for placing cameras, but also undermines efforts to determine if they are actually working to improve safety.
(If I'm reading that right, it means that the placement of cameras at low-crash sites is essentially an attempt to "prevent" crashes that rarely occur, which would make it difficult to gather statistics to prove that they are actually "working". And to my mind, that answers the question about motive.)

Still not surprised? Joseph Ryan and Dan Carden (Daily Herald) think this might do it:
Actually, the private camera companies that rent out the equipment can land nearly as much from the fines as the local government.
[. . .]
Illinois law prevents a specific cut of the ticket from going to the camera company, so standard contracts require either monthly fees per camera or particular charges for services, including collecting and mailing the violations.

For example, a typical RedSpeed contract calls for a $1,499 fee per camera, per month. Then the company, which has offices in Lombard but is based in England, charges the municipality $5.99 for every time it relays pictures of violations, retrieves motor vehicle registration information from the state, mails a letter, processes a payment, answers a violator's phone call and stores evidence.
In other words, these contracts are very lucrative. And here the story has a very familiar facet:
Al Ronan [is] another former Illinois lawmaker and a lobbyist for RedSpeed since 2007. Ronan -- who lobbied for the red-light camera legislation on behalf of Melrose Park -- was a name partner in a lobbying firm that pleaded guilty to federal bid-rigging charges in 2004, though Ronan personally was not charged. He also was a major fundraiser for both former Govs. George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich.
(You can see campaign contributions for RedSpeed here. Paste the name in the "Last or only name" field, sort by amount, and click "Search".)

Of course, they (the recipients of the revenue) will argue that the revenue is a mere byproduct of a legislation that is intended to improve safety at intersections -- best of intentions and so forth. But there is some evidence that the reverse may be true: Installing cameras at intersections may increase accident frequency. Marge did some research on this question:
This is from one of 5 studies on red light cameras causing an increase in accidents, as published at National Motorists Association:
5) Evaluation of the Red-Light-Camera-Enforcement Pilot Project
Ontario Ministry of Transportation
December 2003

This report from Ontario, Canada’s Ministry of Transportation’s concluded that jurisdictions using photo enforcement experienced an overall increase in property damage and fatal and injury rear-end collisions. The report also concludes that there was an overall reduction in serious accidents and angle collisions. However, a closer look at the data found in this government-sponsored report show that intersections monitored by cameras experienced, overall, a 2 percent increase in fatal and injury collisions compared to a decrease of 12.7 percent in the camera-free intersections that were used as a control group (page 21). [Emphasis added.]

In fact, the non-camera intersections fared better than the camera intersections in every accident category. Quoted from the study:
“Exhibit 2 indicates the red light running treatments have:

* Contributed to a 4.9 per cent increase in fatal and injury rear-end collisions; and
* Contributed to a 49.9 per cent increase in property damage only rear-end collisions.

The rear-end collision results are similar to findings in other red light camera studies."
Download The Full Study

This is by no means an exhaustive list. You can find more studies on the NMA website here.
Another list of studies finding that intersections with red light cameras are more dangerous is at the Shaumburg Freedom Coalition:
Red Light Camera Studies Roundup
A collection of red light camera studies over the last decade shows red light cameras have serious side-effects. Over the past decade, a number of studies have examined the use of red light cameras. The most relevant studies examined the devices in light of changes in traffic and engineering conditions made at intersections during the study period and pulled actual police reports to examine the particular causes of each collision. The following studies are the most comprehensive available:
* A 2008 University of South Florida report found:
"Comprehensive studies conclude cameras actually increase crashes and injuries, providing a safety argument not to install them…. public policy should avoid conflicts of interest that enhance revenues for government and private interests at the risk of public safety . . .”

* A 2007 Virginia Department of Transportation study found:
“The cameras were associated with an increase in total crashes… The aggregate EB results suggested that this increase was 29%… The cameras were associated with an increase in the frequency of injury crashes…

* A 2006 Winnipeg, Canada city audit found:
“The graph shows an increase of 58% in the number of traffic collisions from 2003 to 2004 . . ."

* A 2005 Virginia DOT study found:
“The cameras are correlated with an increase in total crashes of 8% to 17% . . ."

* In 2005, The Washington Post found:
“The analysis shows that the number of crashes at locations with cameras more than doubled . . . Broadside crashes, also known as right-angle or T-bone collisions, rose 30 percent, from 81 to 106 during that time frame. . .”

* A 2004 North Carolina A&T University study found:
“Our findings are more pessimistic, finding no change in angle accidents and large increases in rear-end crashes and many other types of crashes relative to other intersections . . .”

* A 2003 Ontario Ministry of Transportation study found:
“Compared to the average number of reported collisions occurring in the before period, the average yearly number of reported collisions increased 15.1 per cent in the after period . . .”

* A 1995 Australian Road Research Board study found:
“The results of this study suggest that the installation of the RLC at these sites did not provide any reduction in accidents, rather there have been increases . . ."
Read the rest at Shaumburg Freedom Coalition, including links to research and articles.
We all know that braking hard at a monitored intersection (with nervous glances in the rear-view mirror) to avoid an expensive ticket, or to avoid connecting with the vehicle in front of you, is dicey at best. But studies like this suggest something far more sinister -- the revenue-increase game may be costing lives.

There's one more danger that drivers may be encountering in connection with the practice of using traffic violations as revenue-generators in lieu of safety -- particularly at intersections with cameras. Dangerously sudden stops, or increasing speed through the intersection may be the result of shortened duration of yellow lights at some intersections. And obviously this practice of fiddling with yellow light timing would be especially lucrative at intersections that have red light cameras installed.

Chad Dornsife, founder of The Highway Safety Group wrote in Policy Analysis: Camera Enforcement v. Sound Engineering Practices:
This analysis examines the Myth that there are legions of aggressive drivers responsible for a national crisis of red light running and speeding. Evidence suggests that something else altogether is closer to the truth, a complete breakdown in safety standards oversight. Safeguards that were enacted by Congress to ensure that only verified safety-engineering practices are applied.

Yes it's true too many are dying unnecessarily at intersections, but these tragic deaths are only the tip of the iceberg, many thousands more needlessly die each year for the same exact cause, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) regulatory oversight failure.

Rather than championing best practices and staying true to their charter that only vetted best practice be applied, the FHWA HOTO office routinely allows and or adopts unsafe engineering practices to placate political agendas. In regards to signalized intersections, the situation is further exacerbated by the Institute of Transportation Engineers' (ITE) adoption of deviant "guidance" for signal timings. Red light cameras are a manifestation of this failure, both the FHWA and the ITE have abandoned best practice to facilitate special interest, those whom profit or derive power and or jobs from these related enterprises, to the clear detriment of safety. [Emphasis added.]
Got that? "routinely allows and adopts unsafe engineering practices . . . " -- TRADING YOUR SAFETY -- ". . . to facilitate special interest, those whom profit or derive power and or jobs." So these revenue enhancing cameras -- combined shortened yellow light duration -- may shorten your life. Despite clear evidence of the danger, they continue to do it.

Surprised now?

The NMA (National Motorists Association) Foundation is one organization attempting to address the issue with its Stop Short Yellow Lights Project:
Several cities have been caught shortening yellow light times to increase ticket camera profits and we think there are more yet to be discovered.

Red-light cameras can only remain profitable at poorly engineered interesections. Once an intersection is fixed, the money dries up quickly. And once the money is gone, the cameras disappear.

Here's what we can do:

The NMA is gathering information, and they need help:
1) Choose an interesection with a red-light camera installed.

2) Make 5-10 attempts to record the yellow light time. Round to the nearest tenth of a second.

3) Take the average of your timing attempts and write it down. Write down the speed limit as well.

4) If possible, find a nearby intersection, ideally on the same road and with the same speed limit.

5) Repeat steps 2-3. These results will be useful for comparison purposes.
When you have finished timing the lights in your area:

Please submit your results so they can be added to our database.
If you're mad enough to participate, please leave a comment here and let us know -- and let us know what you find out. And even though they're probably aware of the danger, you may want to contact your alleged representatives, too.

(Big H/T to Marge for her contributions to the research for this post.)

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