January 3, 2009

Red-Light Cameras' Green-Light

Justin Katz

Despite a lack of evidence (as far as I'm aware) that red-light cameras have any reductive effect on accidents and questions about whether they even turn a profit for the controlling authority, the General Assembly eliminated the sunset provision to their allowance last June, and the change went into effect without the governor's signature. Happenings and controversies in Houston should perhaps dissuade localities from jumping into the game:

Accidents more than doubled at the Houston, Texas intersections where red light cameras are installed, according to a study released Monday by Rice University and the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI). This result posed a dilemma for TTI and the city of Houston which had requested the study. Houston Mayor Bill White was furious when he saw the report's draft text in August. He banned the document from publication and ordered a re-writing of the text that would reflect a more positive result. To accomplish this task, White was able to turn to the study's primary author, Rice University Urban Politics Professor Robert Stein. Stein's wife, Marty, is employed by the city of Houston as a top aide to the mayor. Stein's newly revised report now concludes that "red light cameras are mitigating a general, more severe increase in collisions."

So, not only do red-light cameras appear to increase traffic accidents, but they can become a lubricant for political corruption and deliberate manipulation of public research. Not a catalyst that would be wise to expand in our corrupt little corner of the nation.

The report's authors achieved the turnabout, by the way, thus:

To achieve the appearance of success, the study divided red light camera intersections into "non-monitored" approaches — the directions of travel at the intersection where the red light camera is not looking — and the "monitored" approaches where ticketing took place. There was a 132 percent increase in collisions at the non-monitored approaches of the intersection where red light cameras were installed and a non-significant 9 percent increase at the monitored approaches. The study treated these increases in both rear end and T-bone collisions as unrelated to the red light camera as long as the accident happened outside of the camera's view.

Frankly, I suspect that a broader study would find a greater increase in accidents, as the mere possibility that traffic lights have cameras increases accidents even at intersections that have none.