Thursday, May 10, 2007

Red Light Blues

Found this interesting. You know those cameras at intersections that snap a photo of red light violators so that they can be ticketed via the U.S. Postal Service? They're supposed to reduce accidents, right? (Of course we all know what they're really for is increasing government revenues, but their purported purpose is safety.) Turns out they increase accident rates. Glenn Reynolds explains at Popular Mechanics, and my own hometown of Portland adds some not-very-shiny numbers to the stats:

Red-light cameras are supposed to make us safer by discouraging people from running red lights. The trouble is that they work too well. Numerous studies have found that when these cameras are put in place, rear-end collisions increase dramatically. Drivers who once might have stretched the light a bit now slam on their brakes for fear of getting a ticket, with predictable results. A study of red-light cameras in Washington, D.C., by The Washington Post found that despite producing more than 500,000 tickets (and generating over $32 million in revenues), red-light cameras didn't reduce injuries or collisions. In fact, the number of accidents increased at the camera-equipped intersections.

Likewise, red-light cameras in Portland, Ore., produced a 140 percent increase in rear-end collisions at monitored intersections, and a study by the Virginia Transportation Research Council found that although red-light cameras decreased collisions resulting from people running traffic lights, they significantly increased accidents overall.

There's a specific light on my husband's and my regular route that has one of these accident-increasers installed. I know it makes me drive differently, and not in a good way. I confess to being one of those people who have slammed on my brakes for fear of a ticket, when it would have been safer to go through the intersection. Praise God, I have not been a participant in the 140 percent increase in rear-end collisions, but I sure see why those numbers went up.

What really bugs me about this is that it's not really about safety, it's about money, and some cities have a nasty way of upping their income. Reynolds goes on to explain that, while longer yellow lights reduce accidents, the practice at some of the lights where cameras are installed is to reduce the yellow light time, making those accident numbers escalate:

This problem can be aggravated by jurisdictions that shorten the duration of yellow lights, apparently to generate more ticket revenue. Last year, CBS News reported on an especially egregious case in Maryland: A traffic-camera intersection had a 2.7-second yellow light, while nearby intersections had 4-second times. Shorter yellow lights are more dangerous--but shorter yellow lights plus traffic cameras generate revenue.

Aarrgh! Don't these people have any conscience? "Yeah, sure. There are more accidents, and more people get hurt, but this department had a surplus this year. There was enough money to fund Crippled Children Awareness Day, and I got a citation by the mayor for outstanding public service. I may even get to ride on a float during the Grand Floral Parade. What difference does it make that some of those children were crippled by camera-induced rear-end collisions? At least they got to go to the CCAD picnic."

This is what happens when Big Brother and Nanny State get married.