Back in April, I wrote a piece for FrumForum taking a counter-intuitive look at red light cameras, arguing that Tea Partiers and anti-camera activists were right to oppose the cameras being placed at intersections, since there were more cost-effective ways of reducing crashes. An idea that I gave particular prominence to was that crashes could be reduced just by extending the yellow light time at intersections.
Unfortunately, the piece was not well informed by the opinions of true camera experts.
Follow-up interviews with FrumForum have confirmed that the cameras do reduce crashes, are more effective, and that many of the “solutions” advocated by camera opponents are little more than gimmicks.
The original piece gave a lot of prominence to the use of an extended yellow light to reduce accident time since it seemed to strike two birds with one stone: reduced accidents by giving more time for cars to stop, and less money being spent since no cameras need to be installed. It was indeed, too good to be true.
According to David Kelly, the president executive director of the national coalition of safer roads, arguments to increase yellow light time ignore that changing the traffic patterns in one section of road affect traffic patterns throughout other sections:
There’s a very specific formula for what the traffic light timing should be, what the yellow light timing should be. And it has everything to do with approach speed, how many lanes are going into the intersection, what the visibility is on the intersection, and what the timing of the sequencing of the lights is. If you had ten lights in a row at ten different intersections they’re all sequences, there are a lot of different factors that go into yellow light timing.
To which the camera opponent response is: but studies have shown that an extended yellow light does reduce accidents. It turns out that the more correct analysis is that it reduces accidents for a certain amount of time.
One case study that Kelly cited was conducted in Philadelphia. It showed there was a 34% decrease in fatalities when you extended the yellow light. But this was not a permanent increase, eventually the accidents returned to their previous levels. “So what happens is you change your yellow light timing in a particular intersection, after a while people get used to the fact that it’s a shorter yellow light or it’s a longer yellow light, people know their driving in their neighborhoods,”
Another individual who spoke to FrumForum about the real world consequences of extended yellow light time was Ron Reagan, a state representative who was in the Florida legislature from 2002 through 2010. He explained that he got interested in the issue after a constituent’s death by a red light runner brought it to his attention. The first tests they did were in Manatee County, and they first experimented with extended yellow light time:
We did notice immediately that the number of violations dropped significantly. But within four days what we found was that people had changed their driving habits. They knew that they had extra time. And it was virtually the same number of red light runners occurred within 4 or 5 days after we changed that light.
This is not the only documentary evidence that red light infractions increase without actual cameras being brought to bear. A study in Houston examined a town which had the cameras but then removed them, only to see a significant spike in violations:
Troy Walden, an associate research scientist at TTI, said the study of one typical town, which he wouldn’t name because the study hasn’t been released, showed that weekly red light violations decreased from 2,445 to 1,738 when red light cameras were installed. But after they were removed, violations rose to 4,755.
In the light of such numbers, how do the camera opponents manage to try to give their campaign against the cameras an air of legitimacy? One piece of evidence that they constantly invoke is a University of South Florida study which challenged a lot of the supposed benefits of increased camera use. One of its authors was quoted on FrumForum arguing:
It is important for the public at large and federal, state, and local officials to understand that motor vehicle safety is advanced through evidence-based methods. Attempts to generate revenue through traffic citations are directly contrary to public safety since infractions are increased by improper roadway engineering, creating hazards and expense for the public
Notably, this paper has not widely accepted among experts. A source whom FrumForum spoke to who was aware of the details surrounding the study explained that many members of the traffic safety profession did not hold a high opinion of the study or its conclusions.
Ultimately, it makes sense that red light cameras reduce accidents and infractions and create a positive net gain. While there was a counter-intuitive appeal to arguing that this was a case of creeping big government that could be resisted at the local level, the overwhelming evidence is that accidents are reduced when people know they are being monitored and that yellow lights don’t stop cars — red lights stop cars.
Although this issue can seem a small bore, it still strikes a chord within the conservative movement. On August 1, the Weekly Standard ran a piece arguing that red light cameras were the ultimate mix of paternalistic nanny statism and crony capitalism with government contractors.
The snark that the piece uses to oppose the cameras is actually very hilarious. First they indict the source of the cameras:
Like many cultural plagues, the red-light camera originated in Europe. Invented by a Dutch race-car driver, Maurice Gatsonides, red-light cameras were installed by European municipalities throughout the 1980s to ticket drivers without the necessity of using actual police. In 1993 the sickness crossed the Atlantic, and New York City permanently installed cameras of its own.
The piece also fell prey to implying that “studies showed” the cameras were not safe:
But the fig leaf of safety frittered away as study after study showed that the cameras made little difference and in some cases actually made intersections less safe.
And attempted to play up problems with the cameras by calling the cameras a threat to the Republic:
None of it—not shorter yellows or the cameras or the $400 tickets—represents a grand, existential threat to the Republic. But it’s a threat all the same. A threat to the idea that government should be a tool of the people. Not a ratchet.
It would be appealing if the facts backed up the ideological assumptions. Unfortunately they do not. Red light cameras reduce accidents and the way to deal with concerns about contractors is to reform bidding procedures, not ban cameras.