Regulation

If Accidents Are Up, the Cameras Must Be Working

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According to the Houston Chronicle, a city-commissioned study found that "the number of crashes at Houston intersections with red-light cameras doubled in the first year after their installation." That looks like evidence that ticket-wary drivers are causing crashes by stopping short at intersections or speeding up at yellow lights, as predicted by camera critics, who argue that such surveillance systems compromise public safety for the sake of revenue. Yet camera advocates say the study supports their argument that monitoring intersections reduces accidents by deterring drivers from running red lights.

How so? The cameras, which so far have been placed at 50 intersections in Houston, do not cover every direction at each intersection, and the increases in accidents were sharpest in the lanes on which the cameras were not trained. Accidents in the camera-covered directions, by contrast, "remained relatively flat or showed only a slight increase." Camera supporters argue that the total number of traffic accidents in Houston rose last year and that the monitored lanes would have seen even bigger increases in crashes without  the cameras. "Collisions are going up all over the city," a co-author of the study says, "but red-light cameras have held back that increase at approaches where they have been installed." (D.C.'s police chief deployed a similar argument a few years ago.)Camera critics say there is no evidence that "collisions are going up all over the city." According to Houston Police Department data, accidents have been falling since 2004.

Another problem with the argument that the cameras have improved traffic safety: Can it really be that they are working only in the directions on which they are trained? That assumes drivers know exactly which lanes are monitored by the cameras at a given intersection, as opposed to being generally aware that the intersection has cameras, which seems more likely to be the case.

Previous reason coverage of the red-light camera controversy here, here, here, here, and here.

[Thanks to Derek Ashworth for the tip.]

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  1. Maybe the problem with the cameras is that that penalize one sort of potentially hazardous behavior (eg., my running a red light) but not other sorts (such as the guy behind me following me too close, in the event I do stop for that light).

  2. I know that I tend to stop short at camera-equipped intersections. Where I used to make a judgement call if the light went yellow, now I absolutely will not enter the intersection on yellow, even if I have to threshold brake to get stopped in time.

  3. Yet camera advocates say the study supports their argument

    It’s a government program. By definition, it’s an improvement.

  4. Sort of related:

    Barcelona has speeding cameras all through the Ronda del Mig, the covered highway that goes through the city. Because the cameras cover everything, no one–and I mean no one–speeds. It’s very weird driving through a city and having absolutely everyone obeying the speed limit and driving the same speed. I can’t even conceive of something like that on the FDR or the BQE.

    So this ubiquitous coverage seems to actually keep people from speeding and improves safety. But as soon as you get out of the city, the speeding cameras are less dense, and people will drive fast, but slow down near a camera, and then speed up again, which is much more dangerous.

    So the solution for red light cameras must be that we need them on every light, right?

  5. “Can it really be that they are working only in the directions on which they are trained? That assumes drivers know exactly which lanes are monitored by the cameras at a given intersection, as opposed to being generally aware that the intersection has cameras, which seems more likely to be the case.”

    Yeah, I was thinking the same thing when I read the proponents argument.

    I’m a chronic make-it-through-the-light-if-you-can type, because where I learned to drive had long yellow lights and decent delays between when one direction turned red and the next turned green.

    But yeah, I positively would hate having to decide between getting rear ended if a guy is following me too closely or is not paying attention and getting a ticket for barely making it through an intersection a split second after it turns red. Somehow I don’t think “but if I didn’t, I would have been rear ended” is an acceptable appeal to the proponents of this system.

  6. Why stop at every light? Why not just install transmitters in every car that automatically sends a signal every time you exceed the speed limit. While we’re at it, lets just let the system automatically withdraw the fine from your checking account! Big Brotha can save us all!

  7. I don’t get the “lanes” argument. Aren’t the accidents caused by people running red lights always involving cars from at least two different lanes? ie, the only accidents that can be said to involve only one particular lane are rear-end collisions, which don’t result from people running red lights.

  8. Also, if it’s possible to tell which lanes are covered by the cameras and which aren’t, couldn’t you just switch lanes right before the intersection to avoid being caught?

  9. I’d like to see an investigation of the yellow light duration time that all traffic lights are set to in different cities/locations – ones both with and without traffic cameras.

    It would be interesting to see of there had been any monkeying with that duratation for intersections with traffic light cameras in order to make it harder to avoid running a red light and increase ticket revenue.

  10. Why stop at every light? Why not just install transmitters in every car that automatically sends a signal every time you exceed the speed limit. While we’re at it, lets just let the system automatically withdraw the fine from your checking account!

    Why not have the EZPass calculate your average speed since the last toll, and recalc the deduction based on the results.

  11. I have noticed that in Baltimore you are much more likely to see a camera on a big downhill, where it is much more difficult to stop quickly. You hardly ever see them on uphills. Many of those camaras are real menaces. On some of those lights you can’t stop on a dime. I have been caught by two, each time when there was bad weather and I thought it safer to gun it as opposed to trying to stop and getting rear ended. They are scams. I wish someone would take them down. But I suppose the city needs the money. Someone has to pay the cops to trample on civil rights.

  12. Maybe it is because of the big flashing light required for the picture. I crossed the street as a pedestrian when someone rolled forward, not even going throught the light, and the light stopped me in my tracks. It is very distracting, comes out of nowhere, and is an unusual event if you are driving or walking. Of course I was facing away from it, it would probably blind you if you were looking at it.

  13. You missed my point. You could still have the cameras on an uphill, with the camera behind the light so it doesn’t flash the driver. They don’t do that because they would catch fewer people and bring in less money.

  14. Solution: roundabouts. They cost the city an initial cost to build, but then no electricity to operate, they keep people moving thus saving our brakes, engines, and fuel. They don’t fail due to power outages, you’d be hard pressed to speed through them, and if there are rear-end collisions because the following car wanted to go, the damage would be less because the speed is less.

  15. But Nick, my grandfather stopped at red lights, my father stopped at red lights, and I’ll be damned if I let some commie euro-fag install logical and thoughtful traffic controls in MY CITY!

    But no, really. Roundabouts are much better, if you get used to them.

  16. Roundabouts could concievably replace SOME traffic light intersections but there’s no way that every single interection that has a traffic light could be re-engineered into a roundabout.

    The costs would be astronomic.

  17. this could be solved by replacing the republicans with better city managers

  18. Not only would the costs be astronomic but they would not work everywhere.

    Roundabouts work for moderate volumes and relatively low speeds (30 MPH +/-)

    In order to work for high volumes and speeds you need a rotary which needs to be over 300 ft in diameter and the land costs alone are prohibitive in urban settings. On top of that they perform poorly compared to a properly designed and timed signalized intersection.

  19. every properly designed city has 35 mph speed limits or lower on the non-highway portions of the roadways.

  20. if taxes on gas were higher traffic would not be a problem and cities would be planned better.

  21. And if we just gave ALL of our money to the government, we’d live in Utopia!

  22. if the right p0eople were running the government it would not be a problem.

  23. if the right p0eople were running the government it would not be a problem.

    Ah, that’s all – we just need to find the right people, who are sufficiently smart to successfully micromanage every part of our lives without market information, and sufficiently pure of heart to never use this unprecedented power for their own gain or to push their own ideologies. Either that, or we need to find magical elves. I’ll leave the harder problem to “nobody”, and get to work looking for those elves.

  24. It’s undeniable that soon GPS transmitters will be required on every car to “prevent societal problems.”
    For instance, you can’t effectively play with the odometer if satellites have a database for the distance traveled by the vehicle. And people could just pay a speeding tax. Finally old rich Benzs would be going the same speed as the poor old Trans Ams.
    And the list of benefits continues.

  25. People are willingly breaking the law by speeding through yellow lights to avoid the cameras, so obviously it must be the fault of the camera, and not the driver, when accidents increase.
    And I thought libertarianism was all about personal responsibility. Obviously I was wrong.

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