Madison Wants Red Light Cameras
I've been following the stories of red light cameras for a couple of years now. I read Matt Labash's 2002 five-part series for the Weekly Standard. I've read Glenn Reynold's 2006 article for Popular Mechanics. I've followed Glenn's links about the subject on Instapundit.com. You may have heard of the concept.
Local cities install cameras at busy or dangerous intersections. The cameras automatically snap pictures of anyone running a red light and police send out citations by the thousands. The idea is to decrease accidents by giving motorists a reason to stop on yellow. The reality is a bit murkier.
Reynold's article and Labash's series give a good run down on the tactics used to make these devices more popular: claiming that it's all about safety, claiming that the public is wildly enthusiastic about the devices, and claiming that the devices cut accidents. Then the articles go on to decisively debunk those claims.
Others worry about safety. Red-light cameras are supposed to make us safer by discouraging people from running red lights. The trouble is that they work too well. Numerous studies have found that when these cameras are put in place, rear-end collisions increase dramatically. Drivers who once might have stretched the light a bit now slam on their brakes for fear of getting a ticket, with predictable results. A study of red-light cameras in Washington, D.C., by The Washington Post found that despite producing more than 500,000 tickets (and generating over $32 million in revenues), red-light cameras didn't reduce injuries or collisions. In fact, the number of accidents increased at the camera-equipped intersections.
Likewise, red-light cameras in Portland, Ore., produced a 140 percent increase in rear-end collisions at monitored intersections, and a study by the Virginia Transportation Research Council found that although red-light cameras decreased collisions resulting from people running traffic lights, they significantly increased accidents overall.
But if the emphasis is on safety -- rather than on revenue -- there are better ways of dealing with the problem. A recent study done by the University of Central Florida for the Florida Department of Transportation found that improving intersection markings in a driving simulator reduced red-light running by 74 percent without increasing the number of rear-end collisions. Likewise, a Texas Transportation Institute study found that lengthening yellow-light times cut down dramatically on red-light running. It also found that most traffic-camera violations occurred within the first second after the light turned red (the average was just one-half second after the light change), while most T-bone collisions occurred 5 or more seconds after the light change. If there's a problem, cameras aren't really addressing it.
Across the United States and Canada -- where two provincial elections have swung for politicians promising to scrap local photo radar programs -- citizens have made it clear why the supposedly beloved technology is installed inside bullet-proof casings. In Anchorage, photo radar operators were pelted with water balloons before cameras were finally banned. In Denver, police thought somebody fired on their photo radar van, though the projectile turned out just to be a rock. Elsewhere, camera units have been smeared with lubricant, pulled out of the ground with tow chains, and rammed by automobiles. In Paradise Valley, Arizona, where the city council once contemplated shooting motorists with photo radar cameras concealed in cactuses, one civic-minded citizen decided to shoot back, emptying 30 rounds of bullets into two photo radar units.
This is the information I'm used to hearing. (For lots more on the increases in accidents, the benefits of longer yellows, and the safety myth read the full Labash series.) That's why I was so intrigued by the recent article in Madison's progressive newspaper, the Capital Times. It pulled out every one of the standard lines.
It's all about deterrence.
The red light camera program works because of deterrent theory, McLay said. People weigh the likelihood of getting caught before they make the decision to violate the law. In a heavily populated urban environment there are too few squad cars policing too many vehicles, he said. It is not possible to have police cars at every intersection looking for red light runners.
It's not about money, it's about safety.
McLay said if police were to implement a program locally they would use the proceeds to operate the system. There would be a firewall between the revenues generated and the Police Department budget, he said.
"We don't want the money, we just want to do something effective to reduce the number of crashes due to people running red lights in the city."
It's supported by Madison residents.
Ald. Robbie Webber, who represents the Regent Street area, said she also gets a lot of e-mails and calls from people who think the city should be using cameras to catch red light runners.
"There is a lot of support for this because people are tired of being afraid on the road," she said.
Tell you what. Let's try increasing the yellows first, and see what that does to the accident statistics. Also, let's the local cities volunteer to send the money from fines to be put into a state pool. If the cities will agree to those two stipulations, I'll keep an open mind on the proposal. Until then, it's just another Madison scheme to shake down residents for more cash.