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Study Questions Effectiveness of Red-Light Cameras in Preventing Accidents

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Red Light Camera - 50th and Quaker

Red-Light Camera. The photographer writes: “Not a good placement if the object is actually to catch/prevent speeding as opposed to just making money. As near as I can tell, it only catches one of the four ways at this intersection unless they’re planning more on the other corners. But now we know where it is, and hopefully nobody will mount a laser pointer on their dash or rear deck to blind it as they drive through… If they assert their right to watch me, I assert the equal right to watch them.”

A report released on Thursday says that U.S. cities are trading safety for profits when they outsource traffic enforcement to red-light and speed camera vendors. The report, by the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), is titled “Caution: Red Light Cameras Ahead; The Risks of Privatizing Traffic Law Enforcement and How to Protect the Public.”

According to U.S. PIRG:

‘Too many cities wrongly sign away power to ensure the safety of citizens on the roads when they privatize traffic law enforcement. Automated traffic ticketing tends to be governed by contracts that focus more on profits than safety,’ said Phineas Baxandall Ph.D., the Senior Analyst for Tax and Budget Policy at the Public Interest Research Group and a co-author of the report.

The report found that close to 700 communities throughout the U.S. use automated traffic law enforcement, for which they have contracts with private companies who operate the cameras and issue tickets to drivers. Traffic engineering alternatives, like increasing the time that yellow traffic lights are on, are often the most effective way to reduce injuries from red-light running, the report says.

But such solutions are often ignored because the cities are more focused on the revenue the tickets bring in. If the yellow lights ran for a longer time, fewer people would run the lights, and fewer tickets would be issued.

One of every five Americans lives in an area that uses traffic-camera ticketing contracts, and the study says that the contracts that cause the most problems are those that require cities to share ticket revenue with the camera vendor, providing a direct financial incentive to the vendor to issue more tickets. Those types of contracts limit the public’s ability to increase the duration of yellow-light intervals or other methods of promoting traffic safety, in order to raise more money for vendors.

Larry Copeland writing in USA TODAY quotes Baxendall: “It just creates this really broad incentive to fine as many people as you can. That’s not a good safety model.”

Copeland also writes:

The trend has been accelerated during the recession as local governments seek revenue that can help them avert laying off teachers, firefighters and police officers, the report says. […]

The privatized traffic law enforcement industry ‘has amassed significant political clout that it uses to shape traffic safety nationwide,’ according to the report, which says vendors aggressively lobby to expand camera use. ‘In 2011, camera vendors employed nearly 40 lobbyists in Florida, whose agenda included killing a bill that would have required municipalities to adopt longer yellow-light times to increase intersection safety,’ the report says.

David Shepardson reports in The Detroit News that many vendors have long-term contracts that require large penalty fees for terminating contacts. For example, when Houston, TX, residents voted to end red-light cameras, the vendor said the city would owe $25 million if it withdrew from the contract before 2014.

Shepardson also writes:

The National Coalition for Safer Roads criticized the PIRG report, saying it ‘relies on a handful of biased organizations to present misleading information and half-truths on red light safety cameras and industry organizations,’ said David Kelly, president and executive director of the group and a former acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. ‘Instead of engaging in a meaningful debate about the role of camera safety systems, U.S. PIRG focused solely on a small number of older contracts.’ […]

In February, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that 676 people were killed and 113,000 were injured in crashes that involved red-light running in 2009. Two-thirds of the victims in these crashes were pedestrians, bicyclists or occupants of vehicles hit by red-light runners.

The study also found red-light safety cameras helped save more than 150 lives in 14 of the biggest U.S. cities from 2004 to 2008. Had the cameras been operating in all 99 large U.S. cities — with populations above 200,000 — more than an estimated 800 lives could have been saved.

The Federal Highway Administration also has reported that communities with red-light safety cameras see a 20 to 87 percent reduction in red-light running violations within 18 months of installation.

“This report is a must-read for city administrators in municipalities considering the addition of red light cameras, for authorities in communities that already have ticket cameras, and for motorists who are subjected to the privatized, for-profit automated traffic enforcement scheme known as red light cameras,” said Gary Biller, the Executive Director of the National Motorists Association.

The report recommends that stronger guidelines be in place to ensure that automated traffic law enforcement programs focus on improving traffic safety rather than on raising money from issuing tickets.

Image by inkynobaka, used under its Creative Commons license.


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