More Fights Over Red Light Cameras

Monday, February 7th, 2011

A new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says red light cameras save lives.

Red light cameras saved 159 lives in 2004-08 in 14 of the biggest US cities, a new analysis by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows. Had cameras been operating during that period in all large cities, a total of 815 deaths would have been prevented.

“The cities that have the courage to use red light cameras despite the political backlash are saving lives,” says Institute president Adrian Lund.

The Washington Post editorial board gloats:

Those findings will be discomfiting to the scofflaws and libertarians who have long believed they have a God-given right to run red lights without the nuisance of risking a fine. They have felt put upon that the government is somehow invading their privacy by training cameras on intersections or “profiting” from the resulting fines. Never mind that in the great majority of cases, the real victims are not the drivers who ignore the red lights; rather, they are the pedestrians, cyclists and drivers of other vehicles who are run over, rammed, maimed and killed by the red-light runners.

The rationale for red-light cameras is firmly grounded in common sense. Police can’t be everywhere, and officers should not be diverted from high-crime areas to police every high-risk intersection. As practically anyone who travels in and around the District can see for themselves, drivers tend to decelerate and exercise caution in red-light and speed-camera zones – which are listed on the police department’s Web site. The result: slower-moving traffic and fewer fatal accidents.

Gnashing their teeth at Big Brother’s supposed intrusion, opponents of the cameras have argued that the cameras violate their privacy or that local governments use them simply to generate revenue. But there are plenty of examples of government levying fines to promote public safety – think of hunting violations, or unsafe job-site conditions – and there’s no greater reason to impugn officials’ motives in deploying the cameras than any in other areas of public safety administration.

Actually, the argument is that there’s good evidence showing that lengthening yellow times is a far better way to prevent intersection accidents than red light cameras. It’s more effective, and doesn’t come with the creepy surveillance state vibe. Somehow, that doesn’t seem as appealing a policy to city governments. Another reason we critics have impugned the motives of public officials is that several cities have been caught shortening yellow times at intersections after they’ve been outfitted with cameras. That would seem to be a pretty good indication of a government that values revenue more than safety.

There’s nothing in the IIHS study about how many lives would be saved if the cities surveyed had lengthened their yellows instead of installing cameras. And over at the National Motorists Association, James Baxter argues that study’s “lives saved” figures are also flawed.

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44 Responses to “More Fights Over Red Light Cameras”

  1. #1 |  Marty | 

    ‘But there are plenty of examples of government levying fines to promote public safety – think of hunting violations, or unsafe job-site conditions…’

    hunting violations?!! poaching is dangerous? shooting a doe without a tag is dangerous? I don’t know anyone who’s ever gotten an ‘unsafe hunting’ ticket.

    they also conveniently skipped over the bullshit that is ticketing people for not coming to a complete stop when making a right on red. this garbage will be quoted as ‘fact’ for the next 20 years. I hope the twit I work with doesn’t see it…

  2. #2 |  MIkeS | 

    Only 14 cities? These things have been implemented in a lot more cities than that. This practically screams “cherry picking”. I’ll lay five to one odds that this, like studies of obesity and second-hand smoke, will turn out to be a product of carefully selecting your sample with he conclusion in mind. Give it six months to a year and they’ll have to sheepishly admit that they’re wrong.

    And even if they’re right, how much are we spending on this debacle? If 154 lives are saved a the cost of several billion dollars in fines and accidents, it’s not worth it.

  3. #3 |  Steve Verdon | 

    Statistical analysis that ignores the alternate hypotheses is of dubious value, IMO.

  4. #4 |  Highway | 

    It’s pretty appalling that the Washington Post editorial board characterizes “libertarians” in the same group as “scofflaws” and “people who have a god-given right to run red lights.” I guess you can chalk this one up to the general trend of ‘libertarian hatin’ that’s been propogated, but it’s really one of the more troubling ad hominem attacks I’ve seen.

    That a major newspaper’s editorial would say that is just vile. I don’t know if it says more about their inability to apply critical thinking, or if they just can’t imagine that some people don’t run red lights but don’t like a tool that has been *known* to be abused by municipalities, that shows very little – if any – effectiveness at the goal it purports to work to, and has significant collateral damage. Whichever it is, to me it’s quite an escalation in the rhetoric against libertarian thought.

  5. #5 |  InMD | 

    This would seem to me to be an illustration of Radley’s theory that the establishment media is best described as statist rather than liberal.

  6. #6 |  PogueMahone | 

    Off topic….
    Boot party in Houston, TX.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pc5Dh3Oz4o

  7. #7 |  t1 | 

    Of course lengthening yellows reduces red light runners – that’s because people are accustomed to 3 or 4 second yellow times and – when you add another second on the end the people who accelerate when they see a yellow have more time to make it through the intersection.

    Once 4 or 5 seconds becomes the new normal for yellow lights, then people will adjust and the red light running will return to previous levels.

  8. #8 |  freedomfan | 

    The Post is typical of statist media in that it unabashedly associates “libertarian” with irresponsible. Why? Because, in their heads, government is in charge of safety, and if you don’t advocate extra government, you don’t advocate extra safety. It’s completely scummy, but that’s a big part of why we see such a snotty editorial stance on issues like this.

    Meanwhile, Radley may be being too kind to this IIHS study in giving it the benefit of assuming that it really shows what the press release says it shows. Its conclusions don’t seem very credible under any real scrutiny. The issue of whether lengthening yellow lights would have resulted in better fatality reduction than the red light cameras is a good issue to consider, but it isn’t even needed because the IIHS doesn’t actually even show that the cameras resulted in any of the reduction they are claiming. A piece at theNewspaper.com (a site that discusses driving issues) tears into the methodological problems with the IIHS report.

    Not the least of these problems is that the IIHS study doesn’t even distinguish between data at intersections with cameras and those without. That’s right: it appears they credited all fatality reductions to the cameras in cities that had installed some cameras, even those at intersections without any cameras. And, of course, cities that build better highway systems will divert significant traffic from intersections and, in all likelihood, reduce accidents at those intersections. (This was the case in the Arizona city that accounted for the biggest reduction in accidents in the IIHS report.)

    I think the appropriate reaction at this point is to assume that the study is a pretty clear indication of what the study’s sponsors wanted to claim and a pretty murky indication of anything else. Ditto for the Washington Post‘s cheerleading for more government authority as the solution to every problem (excluding the business of “real” journalism, of course).

  9. #9 |  Radley Balko | 

    Once 4 or 5 seconds becomes the new normal for yellow lights, then people will adjust and the red light running will return to previous levels.

    There have been a couple studies showing that this isn’t true. The problem is that current yellow durations in most cities don’t give people enough time to stop while driving at significant speeds.

  10. #10 |  Brandon | 

    At least the comments on WaPo are fairly balanced. Some skepticism, some intelligent, sourced debunking of this “study,” and the usual suckers of government cock accusing anyone who disagrees of being a selfish terrorist who just wants to run red lights and murder children.

  11. #11 |  Joe | 

    Bull shit on cameras saving lives. However, I did take my kid to the Green Hornet though, which had an appropriate response to red light cameras.

  12. #12 |  Maria | 

    #7
    The fact that in the study the words “these lawbreakers” is used to cast anyone how’s ever ran a red light into a potential murderer is a bit nauseating, as is the fact that no practical alternative is mentioned. Such as timing.

    There are numerous studies that review tweaking yellow light timing. There’s a zone where a driver sees the yellow and can react to it. As in they have that time to make the decision, either stop or to keep going, depending on their situation (ie. wet pavement, tailgater, speed).

    Lengthening yellow lights increase the zone and a driver is more likely to stop safely or to make it through safely before it changes to red. An additional proposal is to have a second or two when all lights are red to allow for those who accelerate through yellows.

    The point here is that there are proven engineering and system ways to address a serious problem. But the main point of Red light cameras (like many nuisance fees) is not public safety but financial gain (as seen in recent situations when the cameras stopped being profitable and have been removed, fuck any potential lives saved…) the fact that some lives where saved in some cities is a secondary, if pleasant, benefit.

  13. #13 |  Andy | 

    “An additional proposal is to have a second or two when all lights are red”

    You don’t have that already in the U.S?

  14. #14 |  MichaelnotMike | 

    “Red light cameras saved 159 lives in 2004-08 in 14 of the biggest US cities . . .” 159 (lives) divided by 5 (years) = 31.8 lives per year. 31.8 lpy divided by 14 (cities) = 2.271 lives per city per year. How is that statistically significant? How is causation established? The linked press release seems a little thin on specifics.

  15. #15 |  croaker | 

    @13 Depends on the locality and how the traffic engineers have set the light controls.

  16. #16 |  Highway | 

    Andy @13…

    Some municipalities have gotten rid of all-red time because it increased red light running. Baltimore City has no all-red time because of that reason.

    The thing that’s always bugged me about red light camera enforcement is that it could have been used as a deterrent and a safety device. Find the intersections with higher than normal red light running crashes (this is typically ones even with just a few per year, most intersections don’t have red light running crashes). Then make sure that the intersection is designed correctly, and has adequate yellow time, and that the approach speed limits are correctly set (this is almost never the case, unfortunately, because speed limits are set by the wishes of loudmouths and revenue, not by actual road conditions), and refigure those yellow times based on that 85th percentile speed. Then if you still have a problem with red light running, go ahead and put the cameras up. Sign the heck out of it. Make sure people know that it’s a targeted intersection for red light violations. And finally, then you can fine the people who still run it.

    Unfortunately, the vile companies that got into the business weren’t interested in safety, they were interested in profits, and so were the municipalities. So they made terrible contracts, and pressured municipalities to even shorten the yellow time to make more people violate the red light. This is absolutely unconscionable to me. That Mr. Lacy in North Carolina is worried about someone practicing engineering without a license? Well, any engineer who signed off on reducing yellow light timings below recommended times for the purpose of revenue generation should be stripped of their license and barred from practicing. To me, that is gross dereliction of professional ethics.

  17. #17 |  random guy | 

    Andy – I used to do delivery driving in Raleigh all the lights there (with some exceptions) have 5 second yellows followed by 2 seconds of all red, it appears to be the same way through most of NC. So it’s definitely used, I just imagine most people don’t notice it. Also in Raleigh the only red light cameras are around the college campus, despite the speed limits not exceeding 35 anywhere around it and not being higher than 15 on the campus itself, never the less it probably tags two or three people a day. so yeah another data point for cameras as revenue generator and not life savers.

  18. #18 |  David_TheMan | 

    Hate to thread jack but have any of you heard about the Justice Dept. being connected to gun trafficking to Mexico?

    http://www.examiner.com/gun-rights-in-national/project-gunwalker-allegations-bolstered-by-project-gunrunner-indictments

    This seems surreal.

  19. #19 |  Buddy Hinton | 

    When Citizen’s United comes home to roost, all politics will be red light camera type politics. Mark my words (and glad instant karma is not back kwite yet).

  20. #20 |  nospam | 

    Since there are cameras used, if they can’t SHOW us those lives being “saved” in pictures, it didn’t happen.

    I have to go to work now (and avoid running a few red lights on the way) but I’d be willing to be that if you dug hard enough, funding for the vaunted “Insurance Institute for Highway Safety” could be traced right back to manufacturers and/or operators of those red light cameras.

  21. #21 |  Brian | 

    I wonder how many of the WaPo editorial board would approve having cameras installed in their homes to prevent accidents.

  22. #22 |  JOR | 

    “When Citizen’s United comes home to roost, all politics will be red light camera type politics.”

    They always were, and always will be.

  23. #23 |  Highway | 

    Buddy Hinton, maybe you should explain why you think that’s bad? When I look at the red light and speed camera referendums that have gone to vote, I see that, as is pointed out in the NMA article, every time the cameras lose. That’s despite astroturfing and outright spending by the companies involved, bully pulpit preaching by the local politicians who are gaining the revenue, and intense advertising.

    It would certainly seem to be an example of why Citizens United isn’t the apocalyptic happening that the TEAMs want to paint it as.

  24. #24 |  MPH | 

    “The result: slower-moving traffic and fewer fatal accidents.”

    Since most traffic fatalities occur at speeds below 50 MPH, shouldn’t we be trying to speed traffic up?

    See, reaching false conclusions is easy and fun!

  25. #25 |  Buddy Hinton | 

    Buddy Hinton, maybe you should explain why you think that’s bad? When I look at the red light and speed camera referendums that have gone to vote, I see that, as is pointed out in the NMA article, every time the cameras lose. That’s despite astroturfing and outright spending by the companies involved, bully pulpit preaching by the local politicians who are gaining the revenue, and intense advertising.

    Because red light cameras are happening, and happening in an increasing manner, despite their grass roots unpopularity.

    Side note to JOR: You ain’t seen nothing yet. The only part that isn’t really known is how long Mr. Balko will sustain his delusion that big biz is somehow less than fully 50% of the problem. This will become more difficult for him to sustain over time, as the intellectual tension already peeks thru on this thread — and red light cameras are small potatoes. Then again, the bigger the lie becomes, the tougher it is to eschew — so who can say. If there is a pool then I take 2014 3q as the quarter the lightbulb pops on here over the guy with the megaphone here at our beloved Adge.

  26. #26 |  Radley Balko | 

    I don’t defend big business. I defend free markets. The distinction is important.

  27. #27 |  JOR | 

    “The only part that isn’t really known is how long Mr. Balko will sustain his delusion that big biz is somehow less than fully 50% of the problem.”

    The government is the biggest business, and always has been, and always will be. That’s what makes it the government. There are plenty of countries where “big business” as goo goo liberals understand it have no power at all. Those places are soul-crushingly corrupt. “The” problem is a culture that thinks it’s okay to use extortion, lies, and ultimately outright terrorism to get what you want as long as you go through the right channels. Restrict “big business” and some other interest group will step up and use the power that kind of cultural sickness offers for the taking.

  28. #28 |  Irving Washington | 

    The methodology is also flawed. They failed to control adequately for other safety improvements. It’s only a matter of time until this study gets the tar whaled out of it in the academy.

    IIHS has never shown the slightest compunction about supporting premium increases for its funding sources even when those interests conflict with actual safety.

  29. #29 |  Sean | 

    Radley, I hope you would propose this alternative when discussing these problems. I’ve been living in China for a decade, and while there’s much that irks me here, there are some things they do right. Traffic lights are one of them:

    There are no yellows (in developed cities). None. You don’t need them today. We have LEDs today; cheap ones; bright ones. Instead of green-yellow-red we have green-red-timer. Anytime there is a red or green light you see exactly how many seconds are left. You know exactly how long that light you are sitting at will be red. You know exactly how many seconds you have left to make it through the intersection. Why on earth do you need fungible yellow lights if that is technologically feasible?

    Traffic issues in general are much worse here, but that is one thing that works brilliantly.

  30. #30 |  Sean | 

    PS, they also have plenty of traffic cameras here. You can see them flashing for random cars, not just those running red lights.

    If you could get rid of the yellow-light problem, I would have very few hesitations about red-light cameras. You don’t have much of an excuse for trying to beat the light when you knew a hundred meters back exactly how much time you had.

  31. #31 |  Buddy Hinton | 

    Free markets lead inexorably to big business. In modern times, artificial constraint is needed to preserve the multitudinous supplier / multitudinous captitalist system espoused by Adam Smith (and me). This was actually understood from 1890 to 1980, but now qualifies as forgotten knowledge.

    Anyway, it is going to take until 2014, Q3 for you, Mr. Balko. We shouldn’t try to rush things. Certainly you are going to “get it” before Team Red does or Team Blue does because you look at things with an independent, and somewhat open, mind and can admit mistakes in the fullness of time.

    Don’t get me wrong. I agree with you that business regulations that currently exist and are enforced are counterproductive bull hockey. Your passion about that subject is touching and righteous. In this sense, I am every bit the free marketer that you are. I like the pre ’80 Milton and you like the post ’80 Milton. We are not so different, and, now that Citizen’s United has been decided, time is on my side (yes, it is).

  32. #32 |  Steve Verdon | 

    Free markets lead inexorably to big business. In modern times, artificial constraint is needed to preserve the multitudinous supplier / multitudinous captitalist system espoused by Adam Smith (and me).

    Interesting, but that is a highly debatable position and needs better support than, “It was well known from date 1 to date 2.” That kind of argumentation is lazy and totally unpersuasive.

    Here, I’ll provide you with some help. Look at Standard Oil, many “progressives” like to use that as the obvious whipping boy. However, while Standard did become big and control a significant portion of the oil refining market the facts are a bit more complicated.

    1. By the time Standard was broken up it was in decline, its market share was off 50% from its peak. One reason for this was the discovery of oil in areas of the U.S. that were not dominated by Standard. Another was that demand for oil based products was increasing faster than Standard could supply, so this left a residual demand for competitors to gain a foothold in the market.

    2. The price of kerosene, the primary product of oil at the time, dropped dramatically making it much more affordable for many more consumers.

    3. Standard was an innovative company that found uses for by-products of the refining process that were considered waste at the time–e.g. vasoline, paint, and tar.

    4. Standard was also extremely efficient which is one reason why it gobbled up competitors, for example while many refineries would dump the gasoline by-product into rivers Standard used it to power their equipment.

    This tends not to fit the description of your typical monopolist. Was breaking up Standard good? Possibly, but interestingly enough, each of the separate companies were successful and as a result of the break Rockefeller got even richer.

    Anyway, it is going to take until 2014, Q3 for you, Mr. Balko. We shouldn’t try to rush things. Certainly you are going to “get it” before Team Red does or Team Blue does because you look at things with an independent, and somewhat open, mind and can admit mistakes in the fullness of time.

    My what a nice condescending backhanded compliment.

    Don’t get me wrong. I agree with you that business regulations that currently exist and are enforced are counterproductive bull hockey.

    Here is an idea, maybe they are what lead to “to big to fail”? If that is the case, then it is evidence against your contention that free markets lead to bigger and bigger businesses.

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  34. #34 |  Steve Verdon | 

    Okay…so you got nothing eh Buddy?

  35. #35 |  Whim | 

    Many errors have been made in the implementation of Red Light cameras.

    The outsourcing companies that agitate for the adoption of these cameras have been shown to pick intersections with short Yellow Light intervals.

    It has also been documented that local governments and these service provider entities collaborated to SHORTEN the Yellow Light intervals, dropping for instance the interval from 4 seconds to only 3 seconds, in order to increase the number of violators.

    An early adopter was the city of San Diego, where judges have thrown out thousands of tickets early in the adoption process when it was discovered through litigation that it was the outsourced service provider that was deciding on violators, rather than the police.

    Additionally, judges have determined that the basis of the service fees paid to these companies must be on a FIXED basis, not a per-ticket basis, because judges had the basic common sense to discern the over-arching profit incentive for a per-ticket charge basis.

    Finally, when voters get a chance to vote, they vote OUT the Red Light cameras.

  36. #36 |  Buddy Hinton | 

    I said my peace. I didn’t see anything in your response that needed responding to. The oil oligopoly had the government take us to war in Iraq not so long ago. An expensive (for the taxpayers) and failed war. Standard, Schmandard. And, as far as the bailout somehow showing that the business world is not overconsolidated — ummmm, whaaaat?

    I know that I am squaring directly off against the mighty Koch-Octopus when I argue that overconsolidation is not just a problem, but THE problem (the one worth mentioning). On the other hand, I know that Mr. Balko and that Octopus are not joined at the ink-shooter and that he can distance himself from them any time he wants if reality urges him to break from the Octopus. Citizens United will be that away-from-the -Octopus-taker. But not yet. It is going to take an election cycle or 2 before big business gets as brazen as the red light camera companies are now. All we are doing here is keeping a record so that future readers will have a better idea about how great minds evolve over time.

  37. #37 |  Dana Gower | 

    I’m coming to this late and no one will see it, but just felt that this “study” couldn’t go unmentioned. @#2 is right about the cherry picking and @#28 about the methodology. The last two paragraphs in the article state:

    Results in each of the 14 camera cities varied. The biggest drop in the rate of fatal red light running crashes came in Chandler, Ariz., where the decline was 79 percent. Two cities, Raleigh, NC, and Bakersfield, Calif., experienced an increase.
    “We don’t know exactly why the data from Raleigh and Bakersfield didn’t line up with what we found elsewhere,” McCartt says. “Both cities have expanded geographically over the past two decades, and that probably has a lot to do with it.”

    Two cities saw an increase in fatalities. The story doesn’t say how big the increase was. One city saw a 79 percent decrease. With just 14 cities in the study, and a 79 percent decrease in one, obviously the results are skewed.

  38. #38 |  Ed | 

    There is a red light camera one block from my home (Merrick Road & Park Ave. in Massapequa, NY). The yellow time has been recently dangerously shortened by Nassau County, NY to increase revenue.

    The intersection is now very scary and very dangerous thanks to red light camera corruption.

  39. #39 |  Doc99 | 

    The study is difficult to evaluate because they do not show their actual stats – therefore, we cannot see confidence limits etc. Moveover the comment about selection bias is well-taken. It’s hard to take this study seriously.

  40. #40 |  Frank | 

    I ride a motorcycle.

    Anything that lessens by any percentage the number of things people can, might and do do to kill me on the road is fine by me.

    Lengthen yellow lights? Fine – just have a big publicity campaign to make sure people understand yellow means slow down (and prepare to stop at an intersection) and absolutely does not mean speed up to miss the red, which based only on my personal experience is how many automobile drivers view it.

    I, as did another poster, find it hard to accept the results of the studies showing increased yellow time reduces intersection jumping. I point to post #1 which takes the position that failure to stop at even a full red light is a “BS” violation.

    #14 argues that saving a couple of lives a year is not statistically significant. It would not be statistically significant if the only life saved in a major city was the poster’s, but I imagine he would still find it to be significant.

    I do not have statistics to provide nor even a cite to a site, but I think if you searched for Philadelphia, Roosevelt Boulevard and red light cameras, you will find sources that substantiate a dramatic decrease in intersection accidents, injuries and deaths after installation of a red light camera program.

    Obey the rules of the road; watch for motorcycles; save a life. – Thing is, based on my 30 years experience on two-wheels, that’s not going to happen, so if the state can somehow reduce the very real risk to me on the road, I am for it.

  41. #41 |  NoMoreMarxistsInDC | 

    The Federal Compendium on Traffic Control Devices says that the absolute minimum time a yellow traffic light must be in effect is 2.3 seconds. Anything less than that, and you can throw out the gov’t’s case against you for running a red (or yellow) light.

  42. #42 |  Steve Verdon | 

    I know that I am squaring directly off against the mighty Koch-Octopus when I argue that overconsolidation is not just a problem, but THE problem (the one worth mentioning).

    Yep, you got nothing Buddy. I don’t work for the Koch’s.

    Here is the problem with your free markets lead to ever greater levels of concentration, nothing prevents entry into a market in a free market. So if your argument is free markets => consolidation => increasing (economic) profits, entry would occur and drive down those profits. Part of the “free” in the “free market” usually refers to free entry and exit into and out of the market.

    Now toddle along Buddy and if you comment up with something other than guilt by association by all means post it up.

  43. #43 |  Steve Verdon | 

    ut not yet. It is going to take an election cycle or 2 before big business gets as brazen as the red light camera companies are now.

    Buddy,

    You do realize that red light camera companies are working with government and hence cannot be considered a “free market” situation? Right?

    It sure would help your cause Buddy if you at least got your terminology correct…right now it looks like you don’t know what you are talking about.

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