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Shamed Traffic Law Violators or a Shamed City Pride? The Battle Over Red Light Cameras Saving Us Less in the Long Run, Part 2

This blog post is part 2 of 3. Watch for part 3 on Monday, July 16, 2012.

David M. Chapinski

Lawmakers on the roads even disagree when it comes to what appears to be in the best interest of the potential victim of a crime so why not make it.  This is a question that has raised much criticism.  How much should fines climb to?  If no one was hurt doesn’t it make the money aspect defeatist if people like Dan Gould still refuse to pay?  Interestingly enough in Dan Gould’s case, Sandra Boonenberg of the Boca Raton Police Force publically said that if he says he stopped and then proceeded in a careful and prudent manner, he should not have gotten a ticket.  Boca Raton Police Chief Daniel Alexander, on record on the other hand countered Gould’s claim that he came to a complete stop, posting video showing what he says is Gould’s car sailing through the intersection, hardly slowing down at all.  Is this countering good for law enforcement of Red Light Cameras?  I highly doubt it.  It seems like it will just justify people like Dan Gould doing it again.  There is a sign at the intersection which reads: “photo enforced, includes right turn.” Dan had said after he got the violation notice in the mail, he went back to the intersection and witnessed other drivers stopping at the red light then making right-hand turns, and the camera flashing and snapping their pictures. So he felt like others just like him may have gotten tickets in error.  Dan Gould attested that he saw all these cars just making a right turn on red signal and saw cameras flashing or what not. He said what the heck is this?  CBS 12 meanwhile asked the police department directly whether it looked like the cameras sometimes could make a mistake or are these cameras 100-percent all the time dead on?  Sandra Boonenberg of the Boca Raton Police Department’s response was that it’s not just the cameras, it’s that they’re being looked at by people at the Traffic Solution Company and then they come to them and as an officer, you are looking at every violation that’s issued.  Boca Raton Police have publicly stated that since the cameras were installed at six intersections in April through the end of May, there were 18,000 violations. Police review each one and they threw out 10,000 because they felt there was not enough evidence. Dan says he will fight his ticket in court.

We must keep in mind when being critical of NYC’s Red Light Cameras that virtually all tickets go to drivers making technical fouls which have NO safety hazard risks. The camera companies know this and deliberately ticket mostly safe drivers for the money. Their business partner cities also know there are almost no tickets going to unsafe drivers, but they want the money.  I believe that the only real answer is a statewide ban on red light cameras. This has failed in the past and is a difficult law to pass because the red light camera companies will spend millions to lobby legislators to keep the red light camera cash registers in place.  There are some alternatives to Red Light Cameras.  One being, increase the yellow-light time.

Yellow-light time is an easy way to reduce red-light violations. It has been effective from Virginia to California in preventing accidents and saving lives.  A study by researchers at the Texas Transportation Institute illustrates the positive safety impact of even a modestly longer yellow light. The Virginia Department of Transportation noted a significant decrease in violations at an intersection in Fairfax County when the yellow light was lengthened by 1.5 seconds.  Critics of longer yellow lights claim there is no long-term benefit because the public will grow accustomed to the longer lights, but research shows this is not the case.  Why not add an all-red clearance interval some have proposed?  A yellow light allows drivers who cannot safely stop to pass through the intersection before the light turns red. Occasionally, even safe and attentive drivers may misjudge the time it takes to make it completely through an intersection. Adding an all-red clearance interval or a brief period where the lights in all directions are red after the yellow-light phase reduces unnecessary accidents. AAA of Michigan and the City of Detroit partnered to make intersections safer, and they found an all-red clearance interval to be effective.  AAA Michigan helped prove one of NMA’s points relating to red light running. AAA Michigan has used relatively inexpensive structural changes to dramatically cut crashes at problem intersections without the use of camera enforcement.  AAA Michigan worked with Detroit city engineers to identify problem areas. They focused on high-crash intersections. The problem intersections were identified, and then specific improvements were decided upon and implemented. Improvements such as enlarging traffic light lenses by 50 percent, re-striping left turn lanes with pavement markings, re-timing the traffic signals, and adding an all-red clearance interval when you leave both sides red for a second or two while the signals are changing.  During the first 27 months of the four demonstration projects, crashes decreased by 47 percent with a 50 percent reduction in injuries.  Interestingly enough, they have seen red-light violations decrease by approximately 50 percent. The larger signal heads are more visible, and they’ve placed them in more discernible places. What they’re finding is that not all motorists are running red lights because they are so aggressive. Some are running the light because they’re not paying attention.  Improving the timing of the amber phase also helped.

You have to decide to stop when you see the yellow, so there’s an optimal length of the amber phase where people can make that decision safely. If it’s too short or too long, you get more red light violators. Some intersections are designed so motorists tend to violate the red — we can reduce that through engineering rather than enforcement.  This reinforces a point that the NMA has made repeatedly. If intersections are properly designed, and signals are properly installed and timed, red light running is reduced to inconsequential levels. This is where state and local governments should be investing their resources, instead of installing cameras designed to further fleece motorists.  How do we make traffic lights more visible?

To read part 1 of this blog, click this link: Shamed Traffic Law Violators or a Shamed City Pride?  The Battle Over Red Light Cameras Saving Us Less in the Long Run

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