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Red light cameras: A liberty issue or a safety issue?

Every year we lose more of our liberty. From unwanted intimate encounters with TSA agents, to calls for limits on free speech after Tucson. Even the freedom of the open road isn’t as free as it once was with the introduction of cameras at intersections and on highways. A discussion of red light cameras may appear to be strictly a safety issue but I believe that the controversy over these cameras is more political than many people realize. It’s somewhat like the anthropogenic global warming theory.

In the beginning AGW wasn’t politicized, it was simply a scientific theory. As time went on those of us on the consevative side read all the articles, looked at the empirical evidence and came to the conclusion that AGW was a hoax. As for those on the left — if they didn’t plan it from the very beginning — they quickly realized that the AGW theory would allow them unlimited power to regulate the economy. As we all know, liberals never let the truth get in the way of government expansion. And who can argue that having cameras on every street corner is not conducive to a larger more intrusive government?

However, the red light camera issue hasn’t become so politicized yet, it’s not a clear cut case of us vs. them. Many conservatives, looking at it from a law and order point of view, might say that the small amount of freedom we give up is worth it to catch those red light scofflaws and make the roads safer and they would have a point except for one small detail. The cameras don’t work as advertised, they don’t make the roads safer. In many cases it’s just the opposite. To back up my outrageous claim I offer three news stories. The first is an excerpt from a recent article from the UK’s Telegraph:

The number of people killed and seriously injured on Britain’s roads continued to fall as speed cameras were taken out of use last year. There were 510 deaths between July and September, compared to 596 in the same period in 2009.

This represented a 14 per cent drop at a time when the volume of traffic fell by only 1.3 per cent. There was also a five per cent reduction in the tally of people killed or serious injured.

The continuing decline in serious casualties coincided with the retreat of the speed camera programme as cash-strapped councils began switching off devices because of spending cuts.

Somerset, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire were among the areas where the number of active cameras was reduced.

The figures will add weight to those who have argued that the proliferation of cameras over the past decade had little to do with fall in casualties during the same period.

“When we have a recession we expect the fatalities to fall because people travel less far, less often and are therefore exposed to less danger,” said Claire Armstrong of the anti camera group, Safespeed.

“Coupled with excessive fuel prices, this is of no surprise to us and any benefit is nothing to do with cameras.”

The next news item is from the The Palm Beach Post, dated May. 24, 2010:

WEST PALM BEACH — Rear-end collisions more than doubled and accidents increased overall in the first 70 days of red-light cameras in West Palm Beach compared to the same period of 2009, traffic records reviewed by The Palm Beach Post show.

In the name of boosting safety, not revenues, West Palm Beach issued 2,675 camera fines worth a third of a million dollars in March alone.

But at the three city intersections from Feb. 21, when fines began, through May 1, The Post found:

–Rear-end collisions increased to five from two. Rear-end accidents sometimes go up with cameras because anxious drivers are more likely to stop abruptly.

–Overall accidents increased to seven from six.

–The only injury in either period came under cameras, in a rear-end crash in March 2010. The injury was “non-incapacitating,” according to records supplied by cities and compiled in Palm Beach County’s accident database.

City officials did not dispute the data but said it was too soon to draw meaningful conclusions.

In the UK they turn the cameras off and accidents are reduced and in West Palm Beach they add cameras and rear end accidents double! How can this be? It doesn’t make any sense. Well, actually it does make sense if you happen to have an old issue of Car and Driver lying around from 2002. Patrick Bedard writes:

When the nation’s No. 1 cheerleader for red-light cameras admits there might be one teensy-weensy downside to the program, you just know it’s going to be a lulu so large it couldn’t be crammed under the carpet without making a bulge the size of a circus tent.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recently enthused over traffic-tickets-by-mail schemes for an entire issue of its Status Report. On red-light cameras, however, it did allow that “most studies also reported increases in rear-end crashes.”

It went on to say, “This isn’t surprising. The more people stop on red, the more rear-end collisions there will be.”

Duh! [....]

Spillover effect is IIHS’s trick for giving the cameras credit for reducing fatalities even where they aren’t. It assumes that red-light cameras at a few intersections will cause drivers to stop promptly all over town, or all over the county, or maybe all over the state, so improvements outside the cameras’ ZIP Codes are credited to them nonetheless. As statistical acrobatics go, this one is breathtaking.

But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The obvious way to gauge the payoff of red-light cameras is to compare intersections with cameras to those without, then zoom in on crashes actually caused by drivers running red lights. Instead, IIHS considered all crashes at all 125 signalized intersections in Oxnard and concluded that injury crashes dropped by 29 percent due to the cameras, even though they were installed at only 11 intersections.

Spillover effect, don’t you know.

Skeptics will notice that crashes went down rather randomly all over town, and some ordinary intersections outperformed those with the gotcha equipment. The cameras look remarkably ineffectual until, just in time, spillover effect arrives to snatch victory from the jaws of ho-hum.

In addition to the three articles quoted above, here is a bonus. I know liberals like to think they have science on their side so I decided to include information on a study by Barbara Langland-Orban, professor and chair of health policy and management at the University of South Florida College of Public Health. ScienceDaily reported on this study in 2008:

Rather than improving motorist safety, red-light cameras significantly increase crashes and are a ticket to higher auto insurance premiums, researchers at the University of South Florida College of Public Health conclude. The effective remedy to red-light running uses engineering solutions to improve intersection safety, which is particularly important to Florida’s elderly drivers, the researchers recommend.

“The rigorous studies clearly show red-light cameras don’t work,” said lead author Barbara Langland-Orban, professor and chair of health policy and management at the USF College of Public Health.

“Instead, they increase crashes and injuries as drivers attempt to abruptly stop at camera intersections. If used in Florida, cameras could potentially create even worse outcomes due to the state’s high percent of elderly who are more likely to be injured or killed when a crash occurs.”

Looking at the evidence from a safety perspective it appears that speed cameras are ineffective and red light cameras are downright dangerous. At this point it should be noted that this evidence only relates to traffic cameras not security cameras like the blue-light police cameras in Chicago. The jury is still out on those, although this quote from Anthony Daniels at The Corner is not encouraging: “Britain has the highest crime rate in Western Europe, despite having a third of all the closed-circuit television cameras in the world…”

As for traffic cameras, I think I’ve made my case. In summation I would simply add, “cameras bad, freedom good.” What do you think?

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