Camera Con

On Monday, Virginia’s House of Delegates killed House Bill 1696 (technically, they sent it back to the Militia, Police and Public Safety committee, a de facto termination), which would have allowed smaller jurisdictions to install and use red-light cameras. The bill laid out specific guidelines for the cameras’ use, the most significant of which was that the cameras could not be used primarily for revenue generation.

Alas, generating revenue is the only purpose for red-light cameras.

Every legitimate study (i.e., studies not conducted by the camera manufacturers or their proxies) has shown that the increase in the incidence of red-light running is directly related not to some presumed society-wide decline in ethical behavior, but to the near-universal shortening of yellow-light times across the past 30 years. There will always be (and always have been) scofflaws who run red lights regardless, and in an ideal world, these cameras would catch them. But in reality, most people are forced to run red lights because yellow light durations are insufficient to allow adequate stopping time.

Safe yellow light times are calculated based on a number of factors, most significantly the speed and volume of traffic. In almost all cases, the necessary times determined by sound engineering practices are undermined by both legislators and, of late, the engineers themselves, as represented by the Institute of Transportation Engineers (which has decided to stop recommending safety-oriented solutions in favor of enforcement-based ones). First, the times are frequently set at the absolute minimum legally allowable stopping time — regardless of the peculiarities of the intersection in question (a change in policy from decades past). Second, cameras are posted not at the most accident-prone intersections, but at the highest-volume ones — in other words, where they can get the most tickets. Third, times are no longer set by the actual, observable traffic speed, but by the posted speed limit. This is head-in-the-sand decision making (just like abstinence-only sex education): Sure, in theory, traffic is all traveling below the speed limit. But only a complete idiot would argue that this is the state of the real world.

The other thing the camera proponents fail to mention is the corresponding increase in the number of rear-ending accidents caused by red-light cameras. Normally safe drivers — justifiably fearful of getting a near-incontestable ticket — are slamming on the brakes to ensure they’re able to stop before entering the intersection, with obvious and predictable results. All you hear about is the decrease in red-light running accidents (with some egregiously shady statistical manipulation), deliberately avoiding any mention of the true safety cost.

At a time when D.C. Mayor Tony Williams and Police Chief Charles Ramsey are arguing for the installation of red-light cameras in the District — claiming all the time that it’s not about revenue — one has only to look at Bladensburg, Maryland, to see the truth. The moment the red-light cameras stopped catching enough red-light runners (March of 2002), the city�s five cameras were removed. But wait a minute, wasn’t that why the cameras were supposed to be there? If that were the case, they would have remained — it wasn’t like the danger of red-light running there had been eliminated; it had just been deterred by the cameras’ presence. But the truth is that they were failing to generate the revenue that had been projected, so out they came.

The Virginia House’s argument in killing the bill was that the cameras were an Orwellian invasion of privacy. That argument, though perhaps an easy sell, given the unprecedented amount of government intrusion into our private lives, doesn’t quite hold water. As a general rule, if the state has reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, it does have the right to use limited means to investigate that activity, ostensibly including the use of cameras (although arguments that the burden of proof must be shifted to the government, not the accused, are as valid as ever). But even were the argument true, the ethical course of action would have to be to dismantle all existing cameras, not just to prevent the installation of new ones. The House’s actions were correct, if not their reasoning, but as long as people keep having the wool pulled over their eyes, the threat remains — particularly given Virginia’s staggering budget deficit.

The solution is obvious to all except those with a vested financial interest in the cameras: Increase the yellow-light times to the engineer-determined safe values, not the politician-driven ones. You virtually eliminate the red-light violations without increasing rear-ending accidents. If the government really cared about safety, they’d do this immediately.

But hey, what are a few rear-ending deaths here and there? We could sure use the money.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home