May 02

Red Light Cameras: The emotional and money trap

As long time readers of my blog know, I am not a fan of Red Light Cameras or Speed Cameras.  That’s why I applauded the citizens of Houston when they passed a referendum last November, that effectively banned their use.

Red Light CameraMuch as I predicted, the city’s vendor, ATS,  filed a lawsuit challenging the referendum and the legalities of terminating the contract.  The judge in the case has ordered the city not to take the cameras down until the case is settled in court.  The city has, however, effectively “shut the cameras off”.

Today marks six months since the election, and I wanted to share my opinion on where we stand.  First though, I want to convey a personal story about this:

In January, two young men were minding their business, driving the Beltway 8 feeder road in West Houston. As they approached an intersection, the traffic signal was green, and they proceeded  to enter. Without warning, a pickup truck ran the red signal and collided with their two-door car.

The young driver of the car did not survive the crash. The passenger suffered serious and life threatening injuries. He is still recovering and undergoing rehabilitation at Memorial-Herman, over four months since the accident.

The driver of the truck has been charged with the accident. Of course, now the lawyers for the families are involved, since insurance does not cover the medical bills.  The emotional price both of the young men’s families face is tremendous.

I convey this story as I work with the survivor’s father, and know the pain that he’s been through the last four months.  A red light camera could have done nothing to prevent this accident, and even ATS admits this.

Red Light Camera Violations 2009-2011

Graphic courtesy The Clifford Group, Inc. for ATS

ATS published a study (see image at right) reflecting the number of violations since the cameras were turned off. At the ten intersections studied, they said the number of infractions increased over previous year levels.

What this doesn’t show is the trend over the operational lifespan of the cameras, which were installed in 2006, nor what the violations were before their installation. Therefore, this graphic is more of a “see I told you so” then it is a truly scientific survey (which should have included that data as well as for the other 62 locations around the city that were camera equipped).

Of course the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has to chime in, citing advantages of Red Light Cameras:

The researchers found that in the 14 cities that had cameras during 2004-08, the combined per capita rate of fatal red light running crashes fell 35 percent, compared with 1992-96.

Of course the report continues:

The rate also fell in the 48 cities without camera programs in either period, but only by 14 percent.

As is typical with the IIHS, they ignored the second part of the statement later in the report. It also fails to report the increased number of collisions that happened on the approach to the intersection, typically caused by drivers stopping short to avoid a ticket.

I tend to discount the IIHS, simply because they are financed by the insurance companies – who are of course in it for the money, as in not paying claims.

Even cities like Los Angeles are now second guessing their use of red light cameras, with the Police Commission divided on extending their contract with ATS. Last week, the City Council there only extended the contract for 90 days. In fact, Loma Linda, California shut their cameras off last December, after realizing a bigger decrease in violations by adding one second to the yellow lights.

At least in Texas, violators pay $75 per violation, unlike California’s $480 per violation.  But the questions remain, what does ATS consider a violation (like right turn on red) and how much is ATS getting per citation?  Is the city still paying ATS despite the vote to shut them off?

The cameras are long overdue to come down.  Houston needs to follow Loma Linda’s footsteps, and re-time the lights.  While it may not prevent all accidents, it will certainly cut their frequency.  Those who have seen the aftermath would appreciate it.

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