Blinding Red Lights

An interview with Jay Beeber

Jay Beeber, a San Fernando Valley writer and producer, began his uphill struggle against traffic light cameras in Los Angeles mainly out of curiosity. “I had seen a news report that said these cameras actually increased accidents at these intersections,” he says. “I’ve never gotten one of these tickets. I haven’t gotten a moving violation in probably 20 years.” Yet Beeber’s campaign to inform the Los Angeles City Council and L.A.’s civilian police commission about the case against traffic light cameras has come to a dramatic pass. In June the commission voted unanimously to defund the city’s cameras.

At press time the city council was split between camera defenders who are cozy with American Traffic Solutions, the city’s camera supplier, and a growing number of skeptics who have converted to Beeber’s position. Senior Editor Tim Cavanaugh spoke with Beeber after the commission’s vote.

Q: What happened? 

A: About five or six months ago, the five members of the Los Angeles Police Commission were all in favor of the red-light camera program. Now they’ve voted, 5 to 0, to end it. During that time, I have been providing them with information. And they’re thoughtful people. They’re not politicians; they’re appointed, and they’re really a great group of people. They looked at this issue from a scientific point of view, from an economic point of view, and they decided that it wasn’t worth continuing.

Q: One piece of information you’ve provided is that red-light cameras actually increase the number of accidents. How is that? 

A: Red-light cameras have been shown in a number of cases to increase rear-end collisions. When a driver approaches an intersection where there is a red light camera, they may react in an unusual way. They may slam on their brakes, for example. Then the argument is, well, the person behind shouldn’t have been following them so closely. But on the other hand, if somebody slams on their breaks in front of you, how much of that is your fault?

The other thing that’s dangerous about them from an accident standpoint is that some people will try to speed through the intersection because they’re trying not to get that ticket, as opposed to trying to drive safely.

Q: And in most cases these are tickets you wouldn’t even get if there were a traffic cop watching the intersection.

A: That’s correct. The rolling right turn accounts for 75 percent of the tickets and the citations issued. We looked at the California Highway Patrol’s database, and looked at Los Angeles specifically, and we found that it’s extremely rare for an accident to occur from a rolling right turn. So 75 percent of this multimillion-dollar program is going to try to change a behavior that doesn’t actually cause accidents.

Q: Is there a constitutional issue, in the sense that your accuser is a photo, rather than a sworn officer of the law?

A: It really has to do with whether the information that they’re presenting in court is hearsay evidence. The person who’s collecting the evidence is not there. They are simply seeing the video and saying you committed this crime. 

Q: What’s a better way to keep people from running red lights?

A: Most of these are red-light incursions at the very end of the yellow, when the light turns. They’re very technical, eighth-of-a-second, quarter-of-a-second violations. And the way you deal with that is to lengthen your yellow light, make sure it conforms to a particular scientific formula. You’re supposed to use the speed of the approaching traffic. In the city of Loma Linda, they lengthened their yellow lights by one second and they saw over a 90 percent drop in violations. The other thing is to have an all-red phase, when the light is red in all directions.

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  • ||

    The interview looks like it ended after a half-page. Where's the rest of it?

  • ||

    I think that's the partial transcript that was in the print edition.

  • ||

    What's wrong with this guy? Governments are short of money. What are they supposed to do, budget wisely or something?

  • ||

    Perish the thought

  • Exactly||

    Someone has to pay for those cameras!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    When Beeber saw the unwatched intersections, he wept for there were no more red light cameras to conquer.

  • Kolohe||

    Looks like this month's reason has some Beeber fever.

  • Art-P.O.G.||

    Beat me to the punch.

  • ||

    In the name of 'keeping us safe', or 'keeping order' etc. the state will seek to abridge our freedoms. Camera surveillance in public spaces is insidious. We have a right to be free from such government oversight.

    Social security numbers were never supposed to be used as a means of identification. It was in the original bill. Go see if you can get a job w/o one. If you want to work as a deep fry operator you need to provide McD's the number or no work. We as a people really do need to roll this level of intrusion back a pile of notches.

    Income tax was originally illegal in country because it is none of the governments business how much you earn. Tariffs and fees kept track of goods coming in and out of the country, which makes sense, as a nation does need to have a clue what is happening at the border.

    What business is it of the government:
    - that you own a house
    - that you are married
    - that you have children
    - how many children
    - your sex
    - your age
    - your race
    - your level of education
    - your profession

    get the picture?

  • Reductio||

    What business is it of the government:
    - that you

  • ||

    this

  • Realist||

    You tell'em! I am sure they will change.

  • George Washington||

    The first thing I did when I became President was order a census of the states.

  • Sir Mix-A-Lot||

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Silly Beeber,

    It's not about safety, or even revenue; it's about how the panopticon trains the serfs to fear the arbitrary, omnipresent power of the State.

  • ???||

    Um, nope, it's about the money.

  • ||

    Its a floor wax and a dessert topping!

  • ||

    I guess you'd feel better if it were a police car sitting at every intersection looking for red light violations. No panopiticon there, right?

    This level of technophobia is ridiculous, especially considering that no red light camera has ever beaten someone's head against a curb or shot someone's dog.

  • Gramps||

    Obviously the solution is impenetrable barriers that pop up at the appropriate time. Or, providing a little Fulda Gap nostalgia, they could drop from above.

  • redefiler||

    Better solution: at every intersection a really big fat guy with a really big catcher's mitt. What ever he catches after the red, he gets to eat.

  • WWNGD?||

    The only people that can judge red light cameras are the people that have been in accidents because of others that went through red lights.

    (or at least that is what someone told me.)

  • jacob||

    Bravo Mr. Beeber. I'm impressed he took time out from his tour to talk with Reason.

  • ||

    Remind me again how this is a libertarian issue? Unless Reason has determined that laws against running red lights are unconstitutional.

    Oh, and the claim that the number of accidents increased after RLCs were installed is misleading and irrelevant, since the accidents that became more prevalent were rear-end collisions, while the ones that are caused by running red lights are the much more destructive head-ons or T-bones. Also this ignores the deleterious effect of red light runners on traffic flow even when there aren't collisions.

  • ||

    Exactly. From my understanding, the accident rate goes up, but the fatality rate plummets. I don't really see this as a libertarian issue, either.

  • GeorgeW||

    @ Tulpa I think you missed the point. It is cheaper just to lengthen the yellow phase and have an all red phase with the traffic lights than putting up cameras. And there is nothing misleading or irrelevant in study showing that accidents increased after RLCs were installed seeing the stated point for having them is to reduce accidents.

  • ||

    People will adjust to longer yellows by blowing through all but the stalest yellows, and some will even take advantage of the all-red phase by blowing through fresh reds if they think they won't get caught. Also, all red phases will significantly hamper traffic flow, as if people actually obey the signals the intersection will be useless for long periods of time per day.

    Leave the yellow timing as is, and strictly enforce obedience to the signal. It's the only way. (I do think we should make sure they don't monkey with the yellow timings, and yes that's a non-obvious problem to solve, but it's not hopeless)

  • reason readin female||

    I've yet to see such wanton disregard for traffic lights, but I suppose it happens on occasion. We're talking about numbers though, and the chances that a majority of drivers will behave the way you describe will be miniscule.

    Why not take a common sense approach?

    Lengthen the yellow, and have an all red phase....and keep the RLC at the intersection.

    If someone blows through a stale yellow..*click* they get a ticket.

    If someone jackrabbits into an intersection from a stopped position during a red light...*click* they get a ticket.

    We have now improved safety and those who don't obey get hammered. Best of both worlds.

    (unless you're the RLC company, then you will see reduced revenue. But it's about safety..so screw 'em!)

  • Toiletus||

    This is quite obviously a libertarian issue; this has to do with use of taxpayer dollars as well as the potential for a reduction in personal freedom.

    Using expensive and intrusive traffic cameras to essentially 'tax' us up the ass and reduce our sense of privacy is not a logical nor a libertarian way of doing things.

    I say (for the first and only time in my life), bravo, Mr. Beeber.

  • ||

    How are RLCs intrusive? Every image they capture is from public space. A person sitting in a coffee shop on the corner looking out the window is "intruding" as much as an RLC on the traffic light is.

  • Toiletus||

    A person sitting in a coffee shop on the corner looking out the window isn't looking to nail anyone for breaking the law, we can assume. They aren't recording our license plates, taking pictures of us (though I guess they could be), and sending us bills. So while I agree it is the same with regards to general privacy (being in public), the ACTIONS being conducted by the two 'watchers' in this example are not the same, and thus I cannot say that the effect they have on public privacy is the same. The cameras REDUCE our privacy, and I suppose in this instance I equate privacy with freedom.

    Have you seen the movie Demolition Man? There are some interesting applications there with the use of surveillance technology to police us. Yes it's a movie I know, but still fun to think about.

  • d||

    European Towns Remove Traffic Signs to Make Streets Safer ...
    www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,2143663,00.html
    Aug 27, 2006 – Towns in Germany and the Netherlands are beginning to remove road signs in the hope of decongesting roads and making travel a less ...

  • ||

    The story of red light cameras in Houston:
    http://www.houstonpress.com/20.....ra-circus/

    The 2 best areas of the article:

    1. If red light cameras are about safety, then why are they only in affluent suburban neighborhoods where people pay the fines, and not in minority neighborhoods where there are more red light violations?

    2. How the camera companies photographed certain plates to not cite tickets for political reasons, so the main opponents go into one of the camera areas early one morning and run every red light they can get photographed running and don't get one ticket.

  • ||

    Excellent link; thanks.

  • ||

    That's evidence of misuse of RLCs, not an inherent problem they have. Police resources are frequently misallocated too, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have police.

  • ||

    That's evidence of misuse of RLCs, not an inherent problem they have.

    It is an inherent problem of the whole system in which the actual RLC is just the first link.

    Police resources are frequently misallocated too, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have police.

    Maybe we shouldn't have that part of the police to which resources are frequently misallocated.

  • George Washington||

    We put cameras in the "affluent" neighborhoods and real cops in the "minority" neighborhoods. I would have said rich to poor or white to brown not affluent to minority.

  • Strawman||

    They study is not misleading...It is spinned in the libertarian/republician favor. You can take the SAME study (which shows increase in rear end collisions and a DECREASE in fatalities from being broad-sided).

    It's just that Republicans (not necessarily Libertarians) enjoy the benefit of Professional Courtesy from a Live Police Officer. You can't show your Badge, "Get out of DWI Free Card", Credentials that you know another police officer, or your white face to a camera.

    They clearly show a minor increase in rear-end collisions (which almost all states say that one should drive one car-length per 10mph to be safe) and fatal accidents have gone DOWN!!!

    I was actually shocked when I saw this report, I was all for removing the lights.

    Extending the yellow will probably cause more fatalities as yellow lights is what makes people speed-up.

    I agree that "California Rolls" on a right-hand turn is an ABUSE and people should NOT be ticketed for that unless NO RIGHT ON RED sign is posted.

  • ||

    I hate red light cameras and anything that increases our surveillance state. Our city just added downtown surveillance cameras on top of red light cameras. They're trying to add dash-mounted cameras in cop cars that automatically scan license plates and upload that map/location data to a central database.

    But if you're going to say that the cameras increase rear end collisions (without siting any statistics) shouldn't you also state that they decreased side impact collisions--which are WAY more dangerous than a rear-end collision.

    As far as my health and life goes, I'd rather get rear-ended 10 times than get T-boned by a guy speeding through a red light once. (For matters of paying my car insurance and repairs, maybe 2 to 1.) So, for me, if rear-end collisions went up 75% but side collisions went down 25% that would be fine with me.
    Unfortunately I can't make that judgment since that information isn't given to me.

    Oh, also there's the fact that you can just increase yellow times and time between red and green cycling, I'm not saying cameras are the answer. I'm just talking about the statistics given here.

  • ||

    RLCs aren't conducting surveillance...they only capture images when a car blows through the red.

    And if you're a tinfoil hatter who thinks they're really capturing images continuously, they're directed at public spaces. A person standing on the sidewalk looking at the intersection is "violating privacy" as much as an RLC would.

  • ||

    A person standing on the sidewalk looking at the intersection is "violating privacy" as much as an RLC would.

    If said person is a government agent, ie. police, then s/he is equivalent to an RLC -- and vice versa.

  • ||

    Whether an act is a privacy violation or not does not depend on whether it's committed by a govt agent or a private citizen.

    The govt has the same right to observe and record things that occur in public places as a private citizen does.

  • ||

    Whether an act is a privacy violation or not does not depend on whether it's committed by a govt agent or a private citizen.

    The govt has the same right to observe and record things that occur in public places as a private citizen does.

  • ||

    Whether an act is a privacy violation or not does not depend on whether it's committed by a govt agent or a private citizen.

    But the consequences are different: a private citizen I have to fight in civil court, the govt. can attempt to get me convicted in criminal court based on the same privacy violation.

    The govt has the same right to observe and record things that occur in public places as a private citizen does.

    Not if it follows it up with public prosecution, which a private citizen can't.

  • ||

    Its not that complicated.

    Red light cameras are a Bad Thing because they are installed to raise revenue; any increases in safety are a pretext, an accident, so to speak.

    Law enforcement should not be a revenue source for the Almight State; to do so is inherently corrupting.

  • ||

    Law enforcement should not be a revenue source for the Almight State; to do so is inherently corrupting.

    Especially when it is contracted out to private enterprise, where the profit motive is paramount.

  • Mainer||

    It's so difficult to keep track of when profit is evil and when it's not..........

  • ||

    Not really; if profit flows from a contract freely entered by both sides, it is OK. Fines aren't the results of contracts freely entered by both parties.

  • ||

    I must have missed the DMV agents dragging you from your home and forcing you to get a driver's license (as well as forcing you to use your vehicle on public streets).

  • ||

    This assumes that driving is a privilege... which is not. The laws are for the people, not people are for the laws; fines exist to 'motivate' people to keep the laws, not to provide income for the govt. or their buddies.

  • Alice Bowie||

    You are not going to win this one neoteny. I agree with you. You have to drive in some places.

  • ||

    "Xing on your own property is not a right. If you X on someone else's property you have to get their permission and follow their rules."

    Does this make sense to you?

    OK, now substitute X := driving and note that the streets aren't your property.

  • ||

    "Xing on your own property is not a right..."

  • ||

    "streets aren't your property"

    How so?

  • ||

    Its not that complicated.

    Whenever someone says this, I instinctively check for my wallet.

    Law enforcement should not be a revenue source for the Almight State; to do so is inherently corrupting.

    What revenue sources are legit in your opinion? You're against taxes, against tariffs, and now against fines -- is the state supposed to be financed by bake sales and unicorn farts?

  • ||

    What revenue sources are legit in your opinion?

    What level of government revenues are legit in your opinion?

  • Strawman||

    I believe neoteny is trying to WIN libertarian sympathy by stating that the PROFIT goes to private individuals...and very little trickle down to the state.

    It is the almighty "GREED" that libertarians hold to be so holy that led the camera manufacturers and the cops that installed it.

    And not that profit when made by the state is good and profit made by private enterprise is evil.

    Libertarians love to say that us progressives are against the profits of private enterprise. We are NOT. Many of us actually own profit-making enterprises. And we enjoy profit.

    What i do find is people liking to "Mix the food with the Shit" and accuse progressives of viewing Profits as evil and taxes as good.

    We all like profit and we all need taxes. No one is going to, in good faith, do anything via charity. We need to collect taxes from people to pay for things.

    What libertarians, COnservatives, and Progressives don't agree on is what to spend the tax money on.

  • ||

    we all need taxes. No one is going to, in good faith, do anything via charity.

    Two statements which aren't supported by argument, although neither are axiomatic or self-explanatory.

  • Alice Bowie||

    Well, we can tell how charitable the RIGHT is when they are just fine letting a 30yo dead beat die. This is something we don't even allow our criminals to do.

  • ||

    One way or another, the State will serve us. Fight the power!

  • ||

    Oh man, I missed this the first time:

    Q: Is there a constitutional issue, in the sense that your accuser is a photo, rather than a sworn officer of the law?

    A: It really has to do with whether the information that they’re presenting in court is hearsay evidence. The person who’s collecting the evidence is not there. They are simply seeing the video and saying you committed this crime.

    Would this apply to convenience store robbery-murders caught on security camera footage with no eyewitnesses? Is it unconstitutional to convict someone on the basis of that video since you can't cross-examine the security camera?

  • ||

    Would this apply to convenience store robbery-murders caught on security camera footage with no eyewitnesses?

    If the prosecution can enter the footage as evidence, then the jury can evaluate it.

    In case of RLCs, they're automatically evidence (or at least exceedingly hard to challenge it as evidence) and there's no jury to evaluate it.

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  • ||

    Privatized traffic law enforcement systems may or may not be a useful tool in keeping drivers and pedestrians safe. But when private firms and municipalities consider profits first, and safety second, the public interest is threatened. Before pursuing a camera system contract, local governments should heed the advice (http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/intersection/resources/intsafpst092609/long/ ) of the Federal Highway Administration and first investigate traffic engineering solutions for problem intersections or roadways. If officials decide that private enforcement systems are appropriate, they should avoid deals that constrain decisions about protecting safety. Privatized traffic law enforcement should be used solely as a tool for enhancing traffic safety – not as a cash cow for municipalities or private firms.

    The U.S. Public Interest Research Group will be releasing a report on this subject on October 27. Once it is released, it will be available at www.uspirg.org/trafficcamreport.

    - Joe Donnellan for U.S. PIRG

  • ||

    Red Light Cameras in areas where there are higher taxes and the ability for these agencies to collect. There are no red light camera's in Brooklyn on highly dangerous roads Eastern Parkway, Atantic Avenue, Kings Highway etc...because there is little way to collect from areas with urban blight.
    Hence demographic profiling is going one to enrich the TPVA in New York.
    Some camera's are actually place in areas where high traffic and where traffic lights seem broken or not working correctly. Traps!

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