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Traffic cameras

Proceed with caution on red-light cameras

There’s a lot of conflicting information “out there” on the results of traffic cameras. Whatever conclusions you want to support, you are sure to be able to find a study that supports that conclusion. Oak Ridge (and any other community considering cameras) needs to “proceed with caution” in making a decision.

I haven’t sorted out all of the various “pro-camera” and “anti-camera” groups. However, National Motorists Association is a consistent opponent, while Insurance Institute for Highway Safety loves traffic cameras. The research findings these two groups report and the manner of their presentations are strongly correlated with their positions on cameras.

Everybody seems to agree that there are no valid controls for any of the studies (for example, in any “before” and “after” study there are numerous other changes occurring that could influence accident rates and severities). There are suggestions that the findings reported are strongly correlated with the affiliations of the people doing the reporting (kind of like drug companies that don’t report the results of the clinical studies that did not find favorable results).

There even seem to be some full-blown conspiracy theories about red light cameras — I’ve seen allegations that one Insurance Institute for Highway Safety staff member is working with traffic engineering professional organizations, vendors, and possibly local governments to “sell” red-light cameras. One allegation is that standards for yellow-light durations have been so as to increase the number of redlight violations, thus creating a profitable market in stopping violations. Former U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader Dick Armey sponsored some sort of Congressional investigation that found that since 1985, yellow traffic light timing had been cut “from an average of five seconds to three seconds in duration” (at the recommendation of traffic engineering organizations) and alleged that “revenue collected from intersections with these shorter durations have become a mainstay of many local governments.” (See this article on the National Motorists Association website).

One of the conspiracy-theorist charges that I don’t believe is true is the allegation that these are a big source of cash for local governments. The main money issue with these systems is that they are expensive to set up and maintain. As a result, they don’t get used except in locations where they are expected to generate a lot of revenue from tickets, and most of the ticket revenue goes to pay for the system (including both money for the vendor and local costs for operation). In many jurisdictions, ticket revenue is less than the cost of the system. Indeed, yesterday an Oak Ridge resident alerted city officials to an interesting article that discusses jurisdictions that have shut off their cameras due to declining revenues.

Added March 29th: Over at AtomicCityTalk.com, Ray Evans posted a link to Federal Highway Administration Red Light Camera Systems Operational Guidelines, which is presumably a neutral source and has comprehensive practical information on the whole topic.

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Cameras, traffic, and cash

The proposed ordinance to authorize use of automated cameras in traffic enforcement was passed by Oak Ridge City Council on first reading. Several citizens made thoughtful comments before the vote. Among other things, they commented on the “Orwellian” aspects of this monitoring, the difficulty in slowing a semi-trailer in order to stop it before a stoplight changes from yellow to red, the high cost of a $50 ticket for a typical working person, and the dire consequences to motorcyclists who are struck from behind after stopping for a traffic signal.

In response to a question, city manager Jim O’Connor said that red-light cameras had been discussed in the past, but that Ashley Paine’s fatal accident was the impetus for pushing forward with a proposal. He acknowledged, however, that red-light cameras would not have prevented her death.

Regarding money, O’Connor estimated that cameras would produce $300,000 in fines the first year — that’s 6,000 tickets at $50 each. That’s a lot of money flowing out of local pockets! Unfortunately, most of that cash would go to the out-of-town system vendor to pay for the system and its maintenance and operation. That seems wrong to me, but then I remember that all of those people  can avoid fines simply by following the law. If only people would follow traffic laws without the threat of tickets and fines… 

City manager O’Connor agreed to hold a work session on red-light cameras before bringing a proposal to Council for a vote. I asked for a work session, and other Council members echoed the request. Work sessions, like meetings, are public meetings, and I expect this one to include lively discussion.

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Red light cameras for Oak Ridge?

The Oak Ridge City Council will soon decide whether Oak Ridge should start using cameras and electronic devices to enforce traffic laws. It’s a complicated issue — there is a diverse variety of pro and con arguments regarding red-light and speed-enforcement cameras.

At the City Council meeting on Monday, March 17th, we will consider (on first reading) a proposed ordinance to authorize the use of these systems in traffic enforcement. Meanwhile, city staff has been reviewing proposals submitted to the city in response to an RFP on electronic traffic enforcement systems, and intends to bring a recommendation to Council on April 21st.

Arguments for electronic traffic enforcement include improved safety, more consistent enforcement of traffic laws (many citizens yearn for punishment of drivers who whiz through intersections as the light changes from yellow to red), and generation of revenue for the city.

Arguments that I’ve heard and read from the anti-camera-enforcement side are diverse. I’ve probably missed a few, but they include concerns about the accuracy (and possible malfunctions) of the electronic systems, concerns that this is “big brother” infringing on personal freedom, concern about the possibility of entrapment (notably, if the yellow light duration is set too short), misgivings about the involvement of private companies in operating these systems, concern that too many of the violators on our roads would escape penalties (for example, because they are driving unregistered motor vehicles that display invalid license plates), and concern about possible unintended consequences, including increased accidents (more on those below).

Some of the arguments I’ve heard for these cameras seem like “keeping up with Joneses” — joining the other cities, including Knoxville, that have started using cameras. That’s not a good enough reason for me, but it is interesting to see how widespread camera use is. According to the website HowStuffWorks, red-light cameras have existed for more than 40 years, but they have mostly caught on within the past decade. Around the world, support for these systems is high. For example, according to this poll 78% of Canadians surveyed supported the use of cameras to identify vehicles that go through intersections after the traffic light has turned red, 84% of Canadians supported photo radar to catch speeders in school zones, and 66% supported photo radar speed enforcement on the highway. Safety advocates and police particularly like the idea that an automated system can catch every violator and free up patrolmen for other work.

Electronic enforcement systems are not yet deployed as widely in the U.S. as in some other countries, but this list of U.S. Communities using red light and/or speed cameras from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows that camera enforcement is widespread in California. Other states where they have been adopted fairly widely include Texas, Georgia, and Illinois. Tennessee cities reported to be using red-light cameras right now are Gallatin, Germantown, Jackson, Kingsport, Knoxville, Morristown, Red Bank, and Selmer. In addition, Chattanooga, Jackson, Mount Carmel, Red Bank, and Selmer have started using cameras in speed enforcement.

For me, the one truly valid justification for electronic traffic enforcement should be improved safety. As the Canadian Safety Council points out (see “Red Light Cameras“) that the objective of this technology is to prevent violations — ideally, to give no tickets. “If the number of violations is high the program is not working properly.” Unfortunately, the commercial arrangements required to set up and operate a camera system pretty much require that there be a lot of violations. The sophisticated monitoring technology is not something that a city like Oak Ridge could buy and operate on its own, so it’s necessary to contract with a vendor such as Redflex or American Traffic Solutions (just two of the companies offering these systems in the U.S.). Under the contracts established between municipalities and vendors, the vendor gets a share of the fines collected by the camera system, so it’s in everyone’s financial interest to locate cameras in places where they will catch a lot of violators. That’s a paradox: If the program is working properly the number of violations should be low, but in order to maintain the program the number of violations needs to be high.

Contrary to the expectation that red-light cameras bring in revenues, many communities have found that they cost more to operate than they bring in from fines. I think that is likely to be Oak Ridge’s experience. Police Chief David Beams told the City Council budget and finance committee that he expects that one patrolman would need to be assigned to the electronic traffic enforcement program full-time — to view images of violations and write tickets. Beams would like to hire an additional police officer to fill the shoes of the officer who is diverted into writing red-light tickets, at a cost of about $50,000 a year. At $50 per ticket (the amount allowed under state law), it would take a lot of red-light tickets to generate $50,000 in revenue for the city after paying the system contractor its share of the fines. However, Kingsport reports having received an astonishing $512,550 in fines ($50 per violation) and court costs (an additional $50 per violation) in the first 9 months of red-light camera operation. Kingsport pays Redflex 80% of the fines for the first 95 tickets each month and 50% after that, so their net has been only a fraction of the $512,550 (and likely is not enough to cover costs of the four traffic officers who review the cameras and the two full-time and two part-time records clerks who support the program), but maybe Oak Ridge can break even after all.

Oak Ridge has some intersections where residents believe the number of red-light violations is high (mostly vehicles entering the intersection just after the light turns from yellow to red), but it’s not clear that these frequent violations are a serious safety problem. There’s a lot of research (for example, in these 2001 articles from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) that indicates that adjustments in timing of yellow lights, and in the duration of the “all-red” interval after the light changes from yellow to red, can reduce accidents. My personal observations in Oak Ridge indicate that the “all-red” interval on our stoplights is effective in preventing collisions, because the stoplight doesn’t turn to green until after the people who ran through the intersection as the light was changing have cleared the intersection. Thus, while red light cameras at these locations probably could generate a substantial number of tickets, it’s not clear that the cameras would prevent many accidents.

Red-light cameras have had mixed results in reducing accident rates. There’s a widely reported study of red light cameras in Oxnard, California that found 7% fewer crashes overall and 29% fewer injury crashes at intersections after cameras were introduced, and an impressive 20% fewer crashes and 46% fewer injury crashes related to red-light running. However, results often are not that good. For example, in 2005 the Washington Post reported that in Washington, DC, the rates of right-angle crashes had actually increased at intersections with cameras.

Another serious concern is the many reports of unintended consequences from red-light cameras. It should be obvious to experienced drivers that cameras can lead to increases in rear-end collisions (because of more people stopping for yellow lights). These accidents are less serious that the right-angle accidents that occur when people run red lights, but a large increase in rear-end accidents is a poor trade-off if the intersection is one without a history of right-angle accidents. A particular issue for Oak Ridge is that the introduction of red-light cameras at an intersection often causes people to change their route to avoid that intersection. It‘s easy to foresee that red-light cameras on, for example, Oak Ridge Turnpike could lead to increased thru traffic on streets like Tennessee Avenue and Outer Drive, and the overall effect might even be reduced traffic safety in the city.

Based on my experience as a driver, passenger, and pedestrian, I think camera-based speed enforcement has greater potential for improving safety in Oak Ridge than camera-based red-light enforcement. Excessive speeds on streets are a concern all over the city. Monitoring speed reliably is technically more challenging than monitoring red-light compliance, but traffic engineers seem to think it can be done reliably on city streets (for example, in this Technical Evaluation of Photo Speed Enforcement for Freeways, Arizona Department of Transportation, 2005). When electronic speed monitoring is used, folks generally are ticketed only for the same clear exceedances of the speed limit (for example, 10 miles over the limit) that a human officer would ticket them for, so it would be hard to argue that the enforcement is unreasonable. On a trip to Australia (a country with widespread use of speed cameras) last year, I was impressed to see that drivers generally obeyed the speed limit in spite of the absence of highway patrols, so I believe that these systems might actually work to improve driver behavior.

Like some Oak Ridgers who’ve talked with me about the matter, I’m bothered by the idea of people’s movement being recorded by a hidden camera. However, I believe that we relinquish some privacy when we drive on public streets and highways, so I think that use of cameras is acceptable as long as their images are used only for traffic enforcement. The American Civil Liberties Union has warned against “mission creep” — allowing camera data to be used for other surveillance purposes.

As for the entrapment issue, I’ve been given assurances that stoplight timing would not be altered to increase the rate of violations at red-light camera locations (for one thing, it turns out that state law controls the minimum duration of yellow lights). However, I believe that over time the presence of cameras could reduce the incentive to make other intersection improvements that would enhance safety. One of my biggest concerns about stoplight compliance is the occasional driver who runs a light because they did not see it. The consequences of that kind of mistake can be very serious, and I would hope that the presence of red-light cameras at an intersection would not prevent the city from implementing measures (such as addition of strobe lights) to make stoplights more visible, if visibility is an issue. Another example of a safety measure (one discussed in those IIHS articles) is restrictions on right turns at red lights during specified hours, which can reduce pedestrian accidents — I hope the presence of red-light cameras at an intersection would not prevent the city from considering adding that type of restriction.

If you’ve made it this far, you are probably asking “How does she plan to vote on this?” On first reading, I expect to vote for the ordinance to authorize the use of these systems in traffic enforcement. Before approving any contract to implement electronic traffic enforcement, however, I will want much more detail about its implementation and its potential safety benefits. Additionally, I hope to hear citizens’ perspectives on the topic…

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