Fantastic article by Kenneth F. Warren in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Re-posted here without permission:
Take a hard look when considering red-light cameras
Make no mistake, red-light camera companies such as Redflex and American Traffic Solutions are private businesses out to maximize their profits, not necessarily to promote public safety. These companies spend millions of dollars paying PR firms, lawyers and lobbyists to promote the use of their cameras They are responsible for planting stories in the media, often using prominent public or former public officials to distort the truth about the effectiveness of red-light cameras.
The reality is that the red-light camera companies now face a very uncertain financial future, not only because red-light camera use is facing all sorts of legitimate legal challenges, but because an increasing number of rigorous, independent studies cast serious doubt on their effectiveness. For example, University of South Florida public health researchers, examining independent red-light camera studies, concluded: “Rather than improving motorist safety, red-light cameras significantly increase crashes.” Barbara Langland-Orban, the lead researcher, summarized her research, noting: “The rigorous studies clearly show red-light cameras don’t work.” I concur.
Large and small cities such as Houston, Los Angeles, Albuquerque, and Fort Collins, Colo., among others, have stopped using red-light cameras because they have become disenchanted with their ineffectiveness. Fort Collins ditched its red-light camera program when intersection accidents increased by 83 percent after red-light cameras were installed. Addicted to the red-light camera “cash cow,” Los Angeles city officials initially claimed their red-light cameras reduced traffic accidents, but a study by KCAL-TV found that 20 of 32 LA intersections with red-light cameras experienced an increase in accidents with triple the accident rate at several intersections.
Exposed, the Los Angeles City Council in 2012 voted 13-0 to cancel its red-light camera program after their Police Commission acknowledged an audit that disclosed that the red-light cameras failed to enhance safety and that about two-thirds of the $480 citations plus fees were issued for simply rolling right turns. Reflecting upon LA’s red-light camera program, Councilman Dennis Cine confessed: “It was completely wrong. It was strictly designed to bring in revenue and didn’t do anything for public safety.”
In dumping their red-light cameras, Hayward, Calif., Police Chief Diane Urban said: “Rear-end accidents increase significantly because people come to a screeching halt. There’s no proven correlation between red-light camera systems and consistently decreasing crashes.”
Locally, communities have been canceling their red-light camera contracts, while other communities throughout the state have suspended their use in light of three recent court decisions questioning their legality. For example, in 2011 the Washington, Mo., City Council voted 6-2 to drop its red-light camera program because its three-year experience with ATS’s red-light cameras proved ineffective. In an interview with Washington Police Chief Ken Hahn, he told me that ATS’s people were great to work with, but their cameras simply did not work to reduce traffic accidents. In 2011, Jefferson County backed out of a pending contract with ATS, while Brentwood did not renew its contract with ATS last April because new council members were skeptical toward the red-light camera system.
Traffic engineers have found that one reason red-light cameras are not effective is because intersection accidents are mostly caused by unintentional red-light running, often occurring several seconds after the light turns red, not by intentional red-light running within a fraction of a second of the light turning red when normally cars with the green light have not yet entered the intersection. Red-light cameras are simply not very effective against these “distracted” drivers who unintentionally run red lights, causing very dangerous “T-bone” crashes. Traffic engineers claim that simply lengthening the yellow light time a little and keeping all lights red for a second or so, allowing the intersection to clear, work more effectively to reduce intersection accidents than red-light cameras.
Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel says he plans to balance his 2014 budget with $120 million in red-light camera/speed camera fines. But it seems immoral for public officials to support a red-light camera program just because these cameras have the potential to generate vast revenues for their cities. Public officials have a sworn obligation to protect the public by promoting public safety. As U.S. PIRG asserts, public officials, when considering red-light camera programs, should “put public safety first in decisions regarding enforcement of traffic laws and this includes evaluating privatized law enforcement camera systems against alternative safety options without regard to potential revenues.”
Despite Emanuel, many public officials have become aware of the cost-ineffectiveness of red-light cameras. In 2011 almost 700 communities nationwide used red-light cameras, but today only about 500 communities do.
Kenneth F. Warren is a professor of political science and public policy at St. Louis University. He received a Beaumont Award this year to study red-light cameras in the U.S., Britain and China