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Red light cameras: Unjustified hate

Huevos Rancheros hates 'em. As for me, I don't mind them. If we lived in some kind of utopia where cops actually enforce laws (say, going after property thieves, pulling over people who ran red lights, etc.) instead of sitting on the side of the road waiting for cars to break drastically underposted speed limits (Spicewood Springs Road between Mopac and Mesa, I'm looking your way), I might be more upset; but as it stands, I'm with Jennifer Kim: this is really the only practical way to get people to stop running red lights. What follows started as a comment to his blog; which grew way too large, so I've posted it here instead.

You're [HR] just as guilty as Martinez at making broad-stroke conclusions without any backing evidence. Two simple examples:

People don't run red lights on purpose, they tend to do it by accident, and cameras won't help that.

I don't buy that without a citation. It looks to me like most red-light runners are of the "run the orange" variety where they speed UP in order to avoid having to wait through another cycle.

But the city isn't looking at increasing yellow light times. Why? Because it would decrease camera revenue.

This would be a poltiically foolish move. Increasing yellow light times more likely means fewer cars make it through each cycle (some people stop earlier as they continue to do what they were taught to do in driving school; the people who ran the red light now just run the yellow; the people waiting on the other side continue to wait). What do you suppose the public would do upon hearing that the city was about to lessen the thoroughput of major intersections in the city?

One can easily fashion red-light camera laws which don't provide the perverse revenue incentives for the contractor (your only strong point) - and one can just as easily find perverse law enforcement incentives in speed limit laws, yet nobody serious argues for their complete elimination.

Besides, every single argument you make applies equally to simply stationing cops in unmarked cars at these same intersections. Could lead to an increase in rear-end collisions. Check. Provides incentive to mess with yellow-light timing. Check. Etc.

Now, if I could only get somebody to make sure they also caught cyclists blowing through red lights...

Update which came to mind while I was talking to a skeptical compadre: How about this compromise, by the way: increase the yellow light time, and stick the red light camera on there? I'd be willing to pay the thoroughput penalty as long as it was publically understood that it was part of this compromise to avoid the supposed bad financial incentives for the contractor / city. Of course, that would never work; the suburbanites and road warriors would resume their ignorant claims about traffic lights being out-of-sequence about fifteen seconds later...

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Driving in Austin , Transportation

Comments

"I don't buy that without a citation."

Lots of studies say that - the best evidence is when there's a countdown timer that people can see so they know when the yellow changes, it's the most effective preventive of all. People are guessing when the light will change. If they know, they don't intentionally run it.

On expanding the yellow light time, that suggestion is from the Texas Transportation Insitute, and it's not as though they're about stifling traffic.

Finally, you're completely wrong that all the arguments apply to cops sitting at intersections. In fact, that cop will give you a Class C misdemeanor ticket, a criminal violation, while this scheme doles out administrative fines. That means that people getting camera tickets don't have many of the protections usually associated with enforcing criminal law, e.g., the officer can only ticket the offender, i.e., the driver, while the cameras ticket the owner of the car.

Bottom line: Studies show cameras INCREASE the number of injury accidents. You can debate if side impact is worse than rear-enders, but if we must send more ambulances to more intersection crashes, have we really improved things?

I should have been more clear: I don't view the legal differences between the criminal and civil offenses as relevant here. You can just as easily get a bogus parking ticket; but nobody's saying we need to eliminate parking enforcement.

I was responding only to the argument that having the camera produces financial incentive for the contractor (or city) to mess with the yellow-light timing.

As for the "countdown yellow" - I'd like to see such a citation, please. People can claim all they want that they didn't mean to run a red light, but that's easily attributable to shame.

And finally, the argument about collisions misses this very important point (to me, at least): Red light cameras raise the chance that the bad guy gets punished from nearly 0% to a very large percentage. That's worth something in and of itself.

BTW - I'd suggest you go watch the committee hearing on HB 259 in the Texas House on Feb. 15, 2005 (available online), where there was a lot of expert testimony given on the best ways to prevent red light running - that, and similar hearings I sat through in 2001 and 2003 at the Lege, are the source of most of my background on this topic. Best,

On the Update, OK, I'll bite - lengthen the yellow light times, or better, add the counters to the most dangerous intersections, and I might not oppose cameras there, too. Problem is, the only reason for the cameras is revenue generation, not safety (that's why the vendors eat the cost of installing them - they make money), so if you actually used engineering methods to reduce red light running, it wouldn't be profitable anymore and they'd never agree to do that.

Think about it: If red light cameras actually worked to REDUCE red light running, by definition the companies would put themselves out of business once their product was installed. Funny how that hasn't happened, in England or anywhere else they've been tried. Best,

Again, those objections can be managed with contracts which don't provide financial incentive per-infraction. This is sounding like childish bitterness more than serious debate when that style of complaint keeps coming up.

The companies, by definition, wouldn't "put themselves out of business" if red light running went from 1% to 0.001%, would they? Even under the "pay-per-infraction" scheme, they'd still be making money.

Finally, you've conflated the "reduction" of red-light running (via engineering methods) with the "elimination" of red-light running (to imply that cameras would put themselves out of business).

You write: "The companies, by definition, wouldn't "put themselves out of business" if red light running went from 1% to 0.001%, would they? Even under the "pay-per-infraction" scheme, they'd still be making money."

No, they wouldn'tm not by a longshot. The camera and ticketing systems run in the seven figures to install, and the companies do it for free. That couldn't happen at dramatically lower rates, and cities would never pay for something like this that doesn't improve safety outcomes - they just do it 'cause they think it's free money.

I responded, BTW, to your "orange" comment on Huevos - I'd encourage you to step back and consider if punishment is really the right way to manage an organic beast like traffic control. Best,

I think we should have huge banners installed at the approaches of these intersections that say "Red Light Cameras!". This will help resolve the debate. If the council's purpose is to reduce red light runners the banners will serve as an additional notice for drivers and help the situation. If this is a sly way to generate revenue I would imagine the camera operators will throw a fit and have the city council ban the banners. This will also serve as some notice to the privacy advocates (me) much like we are warned when our calls are being recorded.

They are safety hazards because people drive erratically. As a result more fendor bendors are caused. This is the reason this site is mapping all of the locations for safety. http://www.photoenforced.com

"And finally, the argument about collisions misses this very important point (to me, at least): Red light cameras raise the chance that the bad guy gets punished from nearly 0% to a very large percentage. That's worth something in and of itself."

I'm too lazy to read the studies, but the goal ought to be to minimize total accident costs (including injury/loss of life); we should care about punishing red light runners only if it will reduce this cost.

If you assume that the approaching drivers know about the cameras, I see how they might increase the number of accidents.

Let's say you're approaching a light that turns yellow, and you're at the "cusp" where you have to decide: stop or go? You've got to calculate: Can I get through the light at my current speed? Can I get through the light if I speed up? What's the risk if I'm still in the intersection when the light turns red -- is the cross traffic stopped waiting for green, or will it hit the intersectoin at a high speed? How long will I have to wait through another cycle? Can I stop safely in time -- is there someone tailgating me? Will road conditions permit me to stop in time? And all these calculations must be made using just an estimate of how long the light will stay yellow.

If the driver knows the camera's there, it's a much simpler calculation: Is there any risk my bumper will be in the intersection when the light turns red? If so, then stop, regardless of accident risk. People who _ought_ to go through the intersection will be overdeterred by the cameras. There will inevitably be more rear-end accidents.

Cameras still might reduce net accident costs; maybe the serious accidents caused by flagrant red-light runners outweigh the rear-end types. But it doesn't seem to me you can answer the question ex ante.

Disclaimer: I've got a very small tie to local folks working on red light camera systems.

The folks I know in town started working on red light camera systems after they got hit by red-light running folks. I believe that Jennifer Kim had a friend hit by a red-light runner, which may be why she's behind them. That's not to say that some places may not push for the systems to raise more $. Just that the supporters I know have a vested, personal interest in reducing red-light running accidents. The pictures of what happens when a dualie drives over the the front of an old Saab's hood weren't pretty. I'm sure I don't want to see the pictures of the deaths caused by red-light runners (7 this year in Austin).

I'm all for having automated systems to catch violations that happen occasionally. It's not worth a cop's time hanging out on my city street for the once-a-month nighttime speed demon. By the time we hear him, it's too late to go outside and see. But I've thought about what it would take to setup an amateur speed camera to catch the bastards before they hit someone.

I'm all for lenghtening the yellows a bit and using countdown timers. And I know when I was driving around Portland lost and confused, it helped me slow down after seeing "red-light cameras in use" signs next to stoplights (a warning at the airport car rental stall would have also helped).

But I'm tired of having Austinites drive like there's nobody else on the road. If I were king, I'd have folks arrested for turning without their signals. But I'm not the king. And I don't have the $ to hire off-duty cops to help slow down the folks running reds. So, while I know some of the reports have conflicting results, I'm still trusting the TX House Research Organization report (http://www.hro.house.state.tx.us/focus/redlight79-15.pdf) that says that in Garland "Program data show that average monthly violations per camera decreased 27 percent from 2004 to 2005, and average monthly citiations fell 14 percent over the same period" and the US DOT study (http://www.tfhrc.gov/safety/pubs/05048/index.htm) which shows that the cameras saved between $38K and 50K per year per site, even after taking into account increases in rear-end collisions.

I agree that the goals and the metrics need to focus on safety, not cash. If they don't work, take 'em down. But it seems to me that it's worth trying.

Grits: If you've got a URL for the HB 259 committee hearing, that would help.

"I believe that Jennifer Kim had a friend hit by a red-light runner, which may be why she's behind them."

Wow, I guess I shouldn't be surprised about the self-centeredness of parts of the council anymore.

* Friend gets hit by a red light runner? We need red light cameras, who cares if it increases other accidents!

* Friends running a mediocre tex-mex restaurant might have to move up the street? Let's try to hijack the landlord's property, who cares about property rights or jobs?

* Friend fell off his bike, almost died (and cost the taxpayers $$$ BECAUSE he had a helmet on, I might add), and had some kind of epiphany? Let's let him mandate what everyone else wears on their bike, liberty be damned!

* Friend had a house built near him that is designed in a style he doesn't like? Let's make design restrictions that make everything a ranch or colonial! Families, affordability, and innovation be damned!

DSK: read the Fed DOT report. While rear-end collisions went up a little, side crashes went down more. And the total cost of all collisions went down.

While I'm not going to argue against the rest of the list, I think the data backs up #1 as ok policy, or at least policy worth trying.

We've had seven red-light deaths so far this year in Austin. What's your counter-proposal for reducing them?

GlennM, you're cherrypicking studies, or your friends are who are connected to the industry. Many studies say the total number of INJURY accidents increase with red light cameras. The state of Virginia banned them after state-generated data from EVERY city using them confirmed that.

There are many counterproposals to red light cameras (see the discussion on Huevos Rancheros) - the problem is most of them, like increasing yellow light times, would reduce the number of tickets given and thus reduce revenue on red light camera tickets, so the city won't be doing that.

If Jennifer Kim is really doing this because a friend was hit, she's misguided. I doubt that's the motive, despite DSK's compelling list of self-involved projects. I think this is all about a free source of revenue that lets council sound pious while mulcting the public.

Committee hearings are available at the Texas Lege website online. This bill was heard if I remember by the Transportation committee on Feb. 15, see: http://www.house.state.tx.us/committees/broadcasts.php?session=79&committeeCode=470 I don't know exactly when the bill starts, but Rep. Elkins carried it. There were similarly informative committee hearings on the subject in 2003 and 2001, and the House floor debate in 2003 where this was rejected was also quite telling.

best to all,

"We've had seven red-light deaths so far this year in Austin. What's your counter-proposal for reducing them?"

A) Before you ask for counter-proposals, maybe you should convince me why the city needs new programs to reduce red-light deaths when a metropolis of Austin's size is dealing with a rate on the order of magnitude of ten per year.
B) Other than revenue, the only benefit I've seen argued for red light cameras is that they reduce the total number of red-light runs at the intersections at which they are installed. That says nothing about whether any difference would be made in red-light deaths in Austin, should we actually need a new program.

There's a couple things here: studies show that the people causing the most injury-related accidents are those least likely to account for the camera's presence.

This brings me to DWI: the number of "red light accidents" - are they including drunk drivers? Because if so, isn't the primary problem that they are drunk...not that they "chose" to run a red light? Again...these people are reading any warning signs or paying a bit of attention to ANYthing on the road, much less what color the light is.

Studies also show that people overwhelmingly are not running red lights by choice, they do it b/c there is not enough yellow time; no left turn lane, etc. I keep hearing about "Austin drivers!!!" and Leffingwell likes to talk about how careless we are as drivers...I'm from Houston and I can assure you, Austin drivers are actually MORE conscientious. I believe everyone, no matter where they live, think the drivers in their town are the WORST. We don't need RLCs here any more than we need them elsewhere, imho.

But we DO have the traffic cameras already installed and COULD do our own study to see what our patterns are, in terms of implementing such a program. We COULD adjust yellow light times FIRST and monitor with current equipment and THEN decide if we need such a system. As it stands, the City hasn't done ANY study. If you ask them for a study (that they reported to the media in June as having done and having taken 18 months to do it), they'll give you a memo which says essentially, "A-ok!"

Anyone feel free to shoot me an email at debmocracy@yahoo.com and I'll get you this report with hyperlinks that are missing on our website:
http://www.aclutx.org/article.php?aid=372

Glenn, the DOT report you cite, as FHA does, concludes that RLCs should NOT be done as a stand-alone (if at all). A study done a year earlier by UTI, funded by DOT, concluded: “In many ways, the evidence points toward the installation of red light cameras as a detriment to safety."
http://www.thenewspaper.com/rlc/docs/burkeyobeng.pdf

I'm going to peel through the TX House report you cite. Hadn't seen it yet. But I'll leave you with another quote from the federal office of the House Majority Leader who did a 2001 study: "...red light cameras aren't fixing a safety problem, they're creating one."

"Studies also show that people overwhelmingly are not running red lights by choice, they do it b/c there is not enough yellow time; no left turn lane, etc"

I've yet to see a study that asserted anything like this; and it fails the common-sense test of observation. (Most drivers at any given intersection are familiar with its yellow-time; some perform actions unexplainable by any means OTHER than purposeful red-light running).

The left-turn issue is a red herring. Easy to factor out of ticket generation (or simply don't put cameras up at those intersections).

Studies show that the people causing the most injury-related accidents are those least likely to account for the camera's presence.

This brings me to DWI: the number of "red light accidents" - are they including drunk drivers? Because if so, isn't the primary problem that they are drunk...not that they "chose" to run a red light? Again...these people are reading any warning signs or paying a bit of attention to ANYthing on the road, much less what color the light is.

Studies also show that people overwhelmingly are not running red lights by choice, they do it b/c there is not enough yellow time; no left turn lane, etc. I keep hearing about "Austin drivers!!!" and Leffingwell likes to talk about how careless we are as drivers...I'm from Houston and I can assure you, Austin drivers are actually MORE conscientious. I believe everyone, no matter where they live, think the drivers in their town are the WORST. We don't need RLCs here any more than we need them elsewhere, imho.

But we DO have the traffic cameras already installed and COULD do our own study to see what our patterns are, in terms of implementing such a program. We COULD adjust yellow light times FIRST and monitor with current equipment and THEN decide if we need such a system. As it stands, the City hasn't done ANY study. If you ask them for a study (that they reported to the media in June as having done and having taken 18 months to do it), they'll give you a memo which says essentially, "A-ok!"

Anyone feel free to shoot me an email at debmocracy@yahoo.com and I'll get you this report with hyperlinks that are missing on our website:
http://www.aclutx.org/article.php?aid=372

Glenn, the DOT report you cite, as FHA does, concludes that RLCs should NOT be done as a stand-alone (if at all). A study done a year earlier by UTI, funded by DOT, concluded: “In many ways, the evidence points toward the installation of red light cameras as a detriment to safety."
http://www.thenewspaper.com/rlc/docs/burkeyobeng.pdf

I'm going to peel through the TX House report you cite. Hadn't seen it yet. But I'll leave you with another quote from the federal office of the House Majority Leader who did a 2001 study: "...red light cameras aren't fixing a safety problem, they're creating one."