Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Red light cameras an unproven cash cow

In the wake of the New York Times' focus on the contribution of "red light cameras" to causing rear-end accidents, the Houston Chronicle looks at the studies pro and con on the question of red light cameras and finds them all wanting.

The article mentions one key strategy for preventing collisions at intersections -- lengthening the duration of yellow lights -- but ignores even better methods, like installing traffic circles at dangerous intersections, or installing lights that visibly countdown with a digital counter on greens and yellows. The former solution makes perpendicular collisions impossible, while the latter gives drivers literally split-second information about when the yellow turns to red. Eric Skrum of the National Motorists Association said,

communities that install red-light cameras rather than lengthening yellow lights or making other engineering changes are more interested in increasing their cash flow than reducing accidents.

Typically, vendors install and operate the cameras for a percentage of ticket revenue, meaning communities incur no start-up or maintenance costs for systems that can generate millions of dollars a year.

From Mayor White's rhetoric, it does indeed seem to be all about the money. The Texas Legislature probably won't let Houston go through with its plan, just like they turned down the idea in 2003. At least the debate is starting to flesh out other possible solutions. Grits has previously commented on privacy concerns with government surveillance cameras.


Scott Chaffin said...

No traffic cirles. People who can't manage a simple intersection will never figure out circles. It absolutely doesn't make perpindicular collisions impossible, either. I saw plenty in my England time. The angle of attack does change a bit, but it also generates more damage as the car that gets hit slides into those on the inner part of the circle.

I do like the countdown signals they have over there. Their's countdown in both directions -- the red flashes before turning green, too. heh heh Takes traffic light drag-racing to a whole new level.

Agree 100% with the revenue generation accusation. It's a 21st-century speed trap.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I can see your point about multiplying the collisions as cars veer leftward upon impact. If entrances to the circle are angular, though, they shouldn't be flat-out perpendicular side-impact collisions, which are more likely to be deadly. I've seen some in Paris that are very well designed.

BTW, I don't claim to have any special traffic engineering knowledge. But I did sit through the legislative hearings on red light cameras in 2003, and those were the two most memorable suggestions from traffic engineers who testified that I thought weren't really taken seriously. I'm with you - the countdown is the easiest fix that would ruffle the fewest feathers, and wouldn't cause rear-end accidents. But that COSTS money, and the red light cameras are a revenue generator.