Thursday, January 06, 2005

Red light cameras cause rear-end accidents

The New York Times ran an article on the hot-button topic of red light cameras today, as the Texas Legislature gears up to address the issue in its 79th session. Here's some interesting highlights:
Cameras ... are now in use [at red lights] in more than 100 American cities. Activated by road sensors when a car enters an intersection belatedly, the systems provide evidence of a violation, including photos of the license plate and in some cases, the driver.

While Baltimore reports that violations for running red lights have gone down 60 percent at the 47 intersections with such cameras, several studies in recent years - in places like San Diego, Charlotte, N.C., and Australia - have offered a fuzzier picture. The studies have shown that the reduction in side-angle collisions at the intersections has been wholly or largely offset by an increase in rear-end accidents like Ms. Correa's.

In addition, there has been criticism of the cameras' use to generate revenue from fines - in some cases exceeding $300 per violation, with points on a driver's record - and of revenue-sharing arrangements with providers of the technology. Those arrangements, critics contend, have led to the placement of cameras not necessarily where they would best promote safety, but where they will rack up the most violations.
Those questions, along with malfunctions and legal challenges, have led some local governments to remove the cameras. ...

Studies elsewhere ... made a striking finding: rear-end accidents have shot up at intersections with cameras. In 2002 a consultant's study in San Diego reported that the number of crashes at camera intersections had increased by 3 percent after the cameras were installed, almost all of it a result of a 37 percent increase in rear-endings. "This finding is not consistent with the program's overall objective of improving traffic safety," the report's authors concluded.

Other reserachers thought the rear end crashes were safer than crashes in the intersection because the cars were moving slower, but at best these statistics are muddy. They certainly don't confirm claims of grandiose improvements in traffic safety made in Houston.

MORE: A city councilwoman in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, whose council colleague is quoted in the Times article, has an interesting blog post on why she opposed red light cameras in her town here. Grits reported here on Texas state Rep. Gary Elkins bill to eliminate red light cameras in Texas, and discussed potential abuses of such cameras in this post. UPDATE: The Houston blog By the Bayou looks at the Times article and offers an opposing view here.

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