A Good Use for Red Light Cameras?

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The latest study to show that red light cameras (RLCs) "nudge" motorists into having more rear-end collisions than they might otherwise have comes from Chicago:

[R]ecently, administrators trotted out a seemingly redeeming statistic: that the introduction of the cameras had created a 47 percent reduction in the rate of right angle, or "T-bone," injury crashes.

The Chicago Tribune in response commissioned a scientific study by two well-regarded transportation researchers, who found that the statistics promoted by the mayor's office were misleading. According to the Tribune, the authors of the study found a statistically significant, but still smaller, reduction in angle and turning injury crashes by 15 percent, as well as "a statistically significant increase of 22 percent in rear-end injury collisions." Overall, there was "a non-significant increase of 5 percent in the total number of injury crashes" that happened at intersections with red light cameras when comparing the injury crashes that occurred there before and after the cameras were present.

On a more granular level, the researchers found that there were no safety benefits from cameras that are installed at intersections where there have already been few crashes with injuries, and occasionally, there was evidence that red light cameras actually increased injury crashes at such intersections. "When intersections experiencing fewer than 4 injury crashes per year are considered, there is a significant increase in all crashes by 19 percent after the installation of RLCs," the Tribune study found.

The Tribune noted that the red light camera program has raised more than $500 million off of the $100 tickets since 2002. "That program needs to be stopped. It needs to be frozen to give us time to re-evaluate everything," Chicago Alderman Anthony Beale, 9th, chairman of the council Transportation Committee, told the Tribune. "This is just more proof that this entire program is strictly to generate revenue and always has been." [bold added]
The alderman is right, and one of his colleagues was explicit about it when he proposed an ordinance banning the use of RLC detectors in cars several years ago: "I don't think the goal is to allow the motorist to subvert the system we're spending so much money on....Why waste money on the cameras?"

Imagine for a moment a private company running a road network like this. You'd be deafened by cries of "conflict of interest" from the news media, and probably by calls for more government "oversight" of the roads. Well, we already have that and more: outright government ownership. Free-market mechanisms, like competition and consumer choice driven by bad publicity -- and proper government mechanisms like, say, class-action lawsuits -- could more easily correct such an abuse, if not prevent it outright.

Perhaps RLCs do have a legitimate use: They can remind us that the government is neither infallible nor incorruptible, and they can prompt us to consider whether there might be other solutions to our problems than running to the government for everything. (And we haven't even gotten around to discussing the proper role of the government...)

-- CAV


Steve D said...

OTOH, if the red light cameras did reduce accidents, I personally would much rather have government funded by fines which are avoidable (i.e. partially voluntary) than coercive taxation. This is particularly the case when the fines are for behavior dangerous to others (e.g. reckless driving) instead of behavior only dangerous to oneself (e.g. not wearing your seatbelt)

Gus Van Horn said...

That's a good point, but the fact that RLCs encourage slamming the brakes has always bothered me, and has almost resulted in my having accidents before. It might be, that if the cameras weren't primarily being used as cash cows, they'd promote safety. (Perhaps, for the sake of example, the cameras could be used at troublesome intersections and a target for accident reduction set. A contractor could get a share of revenue only if that target were met.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,

I think that red light cameras in the scenario you suggest might be feasible with one proviso; If the city or the contractor lowers the time of the yellow and subsequent injuries and deaths occur, the city and contractor employees that altered, or authorized the altering of that time frame should be held personally liable in both the criminal and civil justice systems.

Here are two sources about how just such an unholy alliance traded safety for gov't revenue.



Of course the officials in question deny that they did it for revenue but I think that any shortening of yellow light times makes a prima facie case that they are willing to injure and kill citizens in the pursuit of revenue. And that they should be answerable in a court of law immediately upon demonstration of such conduct.

I confess that I grow weary of extending the benefit of the doubt to gov'ts and their agents who increasingly are out of control. We have officers in the heartland using private companies to target motorists for 'forfeiture' based on the quality of the goods, not the likelihood of them having been used or gained in a criminal act. One even published a book detailing the process and advocating for even fewer controls on it than currently exist.

The Declaration of Independence listed as a grievance that bad actors for the British Crown were given mock trials. Protestations of the police to the contrary, they are not held to a higher standard; their qualified immunity sits better with the system of "I AM THE STATE" Louis XIV than it does with a nation founded on the delegation of powers from the exercise of personal rights.

The biggest downside to this is that such unaccountability gives fertile ground to the 'activists' who refuse to distinguish between the act of self defense that characterized the Ferguson shooting with the act of thuggery that characterized the Garner killing in NYC.

Police apologists have been sowing the wind. They may very well end up reaping the whirlwind.

c. andrew

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for passing along those damning links. Making the cameras promote safety appears to be far simpler than I would have guessed.