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Monday, September 18, 2006

The debate about red light cameras

Lately, there has been a lot of debate about the use of red light cameras at intersections around the country, and about the efect that they have on the safety of drivers on public roads. Much of the debate centers around whether they are fair to drivers or an invasion of a driver's privacy. Some say that red light cameras actually increase the incidence of collisions at intersections, namely rear-ending the car in front of you.

It is not my opinion that the cameras themselves are not the culprit in these cases. Rather, the cause of these collisions can be more attributed to drivers trying to beat the light and having to suddenly slam on the brakes. This has the effect of another driver behind the first driver rear-ending the person in front. More often then not, the driver in back is simply not paying attention to what is going on in front of them. I found an interesting article on that here.

Are red-light cameras fair to drivers?
These modern-day robocops make ticketing easier and can be huge moneymakers for local governments. But critics question their accuracy and fret over privacy issues.

By Christopher Solomon

Think again before you mash the accelerator at that yellow light, and not just for safety's sake. In more than 100 cities around the country, an electronic eye is watching you. It's not inclined to cut you any slack -- or even to give you a fair shake, as many critics see it.

Despite concerns about everything from accuracy to privacy -- even about whether they reduce accidents at all -- red-light cameras that capture offenders on film so they can be ticketed are proliferating. They're in use in Denver; Atlanta; New York City; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle. More seem to pop up every month.

There is no doubt that red-light running is a big problem. Drivers running red lights account for about 22% of traffic accidents in the U.S., according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And that number has been growing: Deadly automobile crashes at traffic signals jumped more than 13% between 1993 and 2003, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, far outpacing the nearly 7% rise in other fatal crashes during that period. A big part of that jump is caused by red-light running, the government says. The offense now kills about 900 people annually and injures 176,000 more.

While no one denies the need to stop red-light runners, there's some debate as to whether cameras truly make intersections safer.

Easy money, low manpower The systems work like this: Cameras are usually triggered by road sensors when a car encroaches on an intersection after the light has turned red. A camera snaps a picture of the license tag and sometimes photographs the driver, too. That information is then usually forwarded to the local police department to interpret, and a citation is issued. Some systems use short video "clips" instead of a photograph. (Click here to see a cool, detailed description of how the cameras work -- and you can try running the light!)

That's work that used to tie up traffic enforcers. But freeing up police officers is hardly the only allure to towns and cities. Many (but not all) have found the traffic cameras to be lucrative as well.

Perhaps the most dramatic example is the District of Columbia's cash cow. The district likes to boast that it has reduced red-light violations at 49 intersections by two-thirds since the program started in 1999 -- but it's also raked in more than $37 million in revenue from tickets, mostly from nonresidents. (Running a red light there is a $75 fine.)

Counting D.C.'s automated speed-enforcement program, the local government has amassed some $130 million from the electronic monitoring programs, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic. That group has praised the results of the red-light cameras but has been wary of D.C.'s motives.
The troubles with cameras These dollars come at a price, as many towns and cities have discovered. Faced with problems in the courts and other issues, several even have switched off their cameras, or at least altered the way they operate.

The picture is muddier than you might think. According to a comprehensive, 2005 study sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration, red-light cameras indeed reduced total "T-bone" crashes by 25%. But because drivers at camera-equipped intersections seem to slam on the brakes so they won't get a ticket, total rear-end crashes increased 15%, and injury rear-end crashes jumped 24%.

Rear-end crashes tended to be less severe, so the red-light cameras nonetheless do provide a "modest crash-cost benefit," the study estimated. But critics of red-light cameras say that the cameras still end up giving a financial reward to a city or town for having a poorly designed intersection that encourages red-light running.

Our argument has been the same from the beginning: Engineering is the key. It's not an enforcement problem; it's an engineering problem," says Eric Skrum, spokesman for The National Motorists Association, a drivers' rights group.

One of the easiest ways to make these intersections safer without gouging drivers, Skrum and some others say, is simply to make yellow lights linger a little longer. A 2003 Texas Transportation Institute study found that increasing the duration of a yellow light by just 0.5 to 1.5 seconds (but not to more than 5.5 seconds in total) would decrease frequency of red-light running by "at least 50%." And though some morons would run even that light, it would still make the intersection safer, the authors concluded.

A conflict of interest? There's money in traffic tickets. In California, a red-light ticket arriving in the mail will cost you at least $370, for example, plus a point on your driving record. And while some jurisdictions have only broken even using the traffic cameras, others have made a lot of money.

Since a camera system is complicated, a city often turns over its operation to a private company. These companies install the cameras and maintain them, sometimes in exchange for a cut of the fine proceeds of 50% or more. Occasionally, some contractors have even had a say in which intersections get the cameras, and they -- not the police -- evaluated the pictures.

The appearance of a conflict of interest is plain: The more citations get sent out, the more money a company stands to make. That's why courts, and the Federal Highway Administration, have frowned on both of these practices recently.

Leaders in Chapel Hill, N.C., decided to turn off that city's cameras in 2004 after a growing unease with the idea of subcontracting government functions to a private contractor.
But other problems have surfaced in North Carolina, where the use of private contractors has thrown the red-light camera network into turmoil statewide. A driver who received a citation in the town of High Point appealed, saying that state law requires that at least 90% of the fine go to the local school system. Instead, cities like Charlotte have used the money to pay the companies that run the camera systems. A higher court has agreed, and so Charlotte and other cities are keeping their electronic eyes shut while the case plays out.

The Federal Highway Administration recommends that contractors shouldn't be paid based on the number of citations issued or have any say in the location of cameras. In fact, governments should pay vendors based on a flat fee, or else install and run their own systems.

One of the nation's largest providers, Affiliated Computer Services, says it now works to structure its arrangements with new clients, and restructure its existing arrangements when they come up for renewal, so the company receives a straight fee for its services, and that all appearances are correct.

Still, the older system is alive. Last month, the town council of Swampscott, Mass., narrowly defeated a camera proposal that would have split the ticket revenue with the contractor that would install them. But the proposal, which could bring in $500,000 annually for the small town, will likely return this fall after a committee studies the issue, says the town accountant, Dave Castellarin.

How reliable are cameras? In 2001, San Diego attorney Arthur Tait defended several motorists who felt they'd been unfairly nabbed by red-light cameras. He won, big time. A judge tossed out 300 tickets, saying the systems as configured were unreliable and so the results were inadmissible. San Diego shut down its cameras while it fixed the problems. Tait has now represented motorists in about 1,000 red-light camera cases and won about 94% of those cases, he estimates.

"To this day we're still finding so much wrong with the accuracy of these programs," he says. "As long as they're being run unfairly, we're going to be able to keep winning for our clients."
But digging into the complexities of how traffic cameras work (or don't) isn't easy for the average person, he concedes. "I don't like the fact that innocent people can't defend themselves without having to hire a lawyer," says Tait, who's helped set up the Web site TrafficFighters to help people fight their own tickets. More cities are switching to cameras that use videotape instead of just take a snapshot. Video footage, while not perfect, at least gives more context, he says. "Overall, video is 100 times better."

But he adds, "I think the bigger problem, and what more cities are trying to do, I believe, is ensure an extra level of government control and oversight." In other words, workers who don't have a financial interest in the traffic cameras need to be used to regularly recalibrate the devices, and roads need to be regularly closed down for road tests, he says. "San Diego has tried to do that."

That doesn't mean the city is going any easier on drivers, however.

In July, the city also passed an ordinance allowing citations to be issued after a "grace period" of just one-tenth of a second after a traffic signal turns red (instead of the previous 0.6 seconds), which will boost the number of tickets and the dollars coming into city coffers.

Privacy and due process

A few critics of the cameras have also worried about privacy and due process. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has urged a halt to the use of the cameras until due process and fairness issues can be settled. For example, efforts to reinstate red- light cameras in 2005 in Virginia Beach, Va., and in Northern Virginia died after the state House decided to let legislation expire that permitted them. Some legislators had been troubled by the fact that owners of the car could be ticketed even though a picture is only taken of a vehicle and its license plate, not the driver. "The burden of proof usually then falls on the owner to prove he or she was not driving at the time," says the ACLU. "This is a violation of the bedrock American principle that the accused be considered innocent until proven guilty."

The rights group says it's also worried about the "mission creep" of cameras in society -- that data collected may be used to do more than tag reckless drivers.
"It's only a matter of time before these cameras are used to investigate crimes other than speeding and running red lights -- I could see them being used for hit-and-runs, or evading police," adds Lee Rittenburg, whose San Bernardino, Calif., law office, Traffic Defenders, focuses on defending against traffic infractions. "It's a very slippery slope that we're on," says Rittenburg.

"No one wants traffic accidents," he adds, but "these are the modern-day robocops, these cameras."

Rear-end collisions have so far been shown to be a magnitude less then getting t-boned after crashing a red light. Anything that can potentially reduce the occurance of fatalities on our public roads. If that means taking dangerous drivers off the road, then that is the only way to go.
I have seen quite a number of collsions in my own home town caused by inattentive drivers crashing redlights. I think that, in time, having RLCs would decrease that number and severity of these collisions. When that happens, we will also see a decrease in the number of fatalities. That should be the ultimate goal.


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