Traffic cameras are about money, not public safety

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Public safety is invariably invoked by local officials to justify the proliferation of red light and speed cameras in the Washington metropolitan area:

"Our goal is to save lives, and speed cameras will give us another resource that will complement our existing enforcement measures." - Montgomery County

"The goal of the District's automated photo enforcement program is straightforward: to reduce traffic violations and, as a result, decrease the number of crashes, prevent injuries, and save lives." - District of Columbia

But such conventional wisdom is wrong, James Walker, spokesman for the Wisconsin-based National Motorists Association, told The Washington Examiner. By interfering with the free flow of traffic, cameras actually create additional traffic hazards.

In Los Angeles, KCAL-TV fact-checked the city's claim that red light cameras improved safety at intersections, reporting that accidents actually increased at 20 of the 32 intersections it investigated.

Last summer, L.A. officials pulled the plug. Fort Collins, Colo., likewise experienced an 83 percent increase in accidents after red light cameras were installed.

Even though they raise millions of dollars in revenue, speed cameras are now prohibited or severely limited in 19 states. Walker says that's because when people learn the locations of the cameras, they temporarily slow down to avoid a ticket.

But the very act of slowing down and then speeding up again greatly increases the risk of an accident -- the very thing that the cameras are supposed to prevent.

"When D.C. first put in its red light cameras, the accident rate almost doubled," Walker said. "Why? The yellow lights were too short. It was deliberate disengineering.

"If the city timed all the yellow lights correctly, it wouldn't issue enough citations to pay the $4,000 or so per month to operate the cameras. Wherever the yellow light has been extended .7 seconds, the revenue has collapsed, and in many cases, the cameras were removed. With an added second, the drops in red light violations are in the 60 to 90 percent range."

That's what happened in Fairfax County in 2001. When the Virginia Department of Transportation increased the yellow light at the Route 50/Fair Ridge Drive intersection by just 1.5 seconds in March 2001, red light violations nose-dived 94 percent, and remained 90 percent lower nearly four years later.

Lengthening the yellow light cycle and adding an all-red "clear phase" at busy intersections can dramatically improve safety without red light cameras, which are prohibited or limited in 20 states, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Though photo enforcement remains popular with public officials because it is a cash cow, generating millions of dollars in annual revenue, backlash against the one-eyed camera cops is steadily growing in the 500 cities nationwide that still utilize them.

Houston voters rejected red light cameras in a November 2010 referendum. After a federal judge ruled the referendum invalid, the political blowback was so strong that all but one City Council member voted to shut down the city's 70 cameras for good -- even though the vendor threatened to file a $25 million breach-of-contract lawsuit.

"It takes a long time to explode a myth," Walker says. "But if they posted speed limits correctly, they wouldn't issue enough tickets to pay for the cameras. Almost every traffic engineer understands the scientific principle that the speed limit should be the 85th percentile of free-flowing traffic under good conditions."

Known as "the pace," this optimum safe speed results in "fewer conflicts, less passing and less tailgating, while maintaining a normal flow of traffic," he said.

But few jurisdictions embrace the pace. That's because photo enforcement is about money, not public safety.

Barbara F. Hollingsworth is The Examiner's local opinion editor.

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Barbara Hollingsworth

Local Opinion Editor
The Washington Examiner