Nanny State

Ladies' Home Journal's Red Light Problem


The August issue of Ladies Home Journal includes a scary article (not online, alas) with the headline, "A New Killer Road Risk," and the subhead, "Read This to Save Your Life!"

The "risk" isn't all that new—the article is about red light running.  In it, author Kelly King Alexander parrots bullet point arguments from auto insurance groups and government officials, data from online polls of drivers, and anecdotes about how red light running has reached epidemic proportions, then closes with some admittedly sad stories from relatives of people killed by red light scofflaws.

Halfway through the article, there's a box with a header set in bold and all-caps that reads, "WHAT CAN YOU DO?"  The copy inside the box says:

Readers can go to and click on a form letter urging the federal government to encourage states to adopt automated enforcement laws to reduce red-light running.  The letters will be compiled by the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running and sent to the White House early in 2009.

Neither the magazine article nor the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running website offer specifics on just how the federal government might "encourage" the states to adopt red light cameras, but the best bet is  that they'll ask Congress to follow the example set in previous attempts to impose traffic regulations on the states—by withholding federal highway money from the states that don't comply.

What Alexander and Ladies' Home Journal don't disclose in the article, however, is that the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running is funded by three private companies: Affiliated Computer Systems, Gatso USA, and Redflex, Inc.  All three are in the automated traffic enforcement business, and all three stand to make millions should the campaign prove successful.  That's a pretty big omission.

The truth about the effects of automated red light enforcement on red light running is actually quite a bit more complicated than Alexander makes it out to be.  She devotes all of two paragraphs to critics of automated enforcement, and mostly just to dismiss them. 

But the most thorough independent study of red light cameras was published earlier this year in the Florida Public Health Review.  That study, which I blogged about last March, included reviews of existing research, and found that most independent studies have found increases in crashes at intersections with red light cameras, including increases in crashes that result in injuries.  It also found that claims of a notable increase in red light runners are exaggerated, and that studies sponsored by insurance companies or done by researchers with ties to insurance companies or government agencies tend to suffer from "research design flaws," and what might be charitably called an incomplete analysis of the data.

One good way to decrease accidents at dangerous intersections is to actually lengthen yellow lights.  But that option tends to drop from consideration the moment cities start tasting the revenue from automated enforcement cameras.  Perversely, the incentive for cities at that point is to encourage red light running, or at least not going out of their way to discourage it.  Several cities have actually been caught shortening yellows after the installation of cameras.

If you're really interested in this stuff,  here's a list of studies in support of red light cameras as provided by the campaign.  And here's a compilation of research that comes down against them.  

But getting back to Ladies' Home Journal, it seems to me the magazine should have disclosed the fact that the campaign it partnered with to nudge its readers to lobby Washington is underwritten by three companies who stand to make quite a bit of money should that pressure result in a new law. It may have also given readers reason to look at Alexander's article a bit more skeptically.