Red-light cameras can blame drivers for poor traffic engineering

A movement against red light traffic cameras “appears to [be] gaining traction across the country,” reported MSNBC last week. Boulder officials want to add more red light cameras. Is this a good idea?

Say an intersection has an abnormally high rate of red light violations. Using red-light cameras puts blame on the drivers. But this seems unfair, as the same drivers also use safer intersections nearby. It’s more reasonable to first look for deficiencies in signal timing, visibility of signals, signs, and lane markings.

To encourage such solutions, the National Motorists Association offers a “$10,000 Ticket Camera Challenge” for intersections with high red light violations. The NMA guarantees “a minimum 50-percent reduction in red-light violations through the application of engineering solutions” or it will “pay the community $10,000 [for] any traffic safety program or project it chooses.”

Traffic cameras are also legally questionable, as defendants cannot confront their accuser.  A California Superior Court Judge recently struck down eight cases of alleged red light running for these reasons. “Defendants here are entitled to be confronted with the testifying witness at trial,” she wrote.

As for effectiveness, data from the Boulder’s Transportation division shows decreased accidents at intersections after camera installations. But other factors could have been relevant. For example, changes in signal timing, all-red durations, and traffic volume. Further, there was no mention of how accident rates changed at intersections without cameras.

These shortcomings are typical of red light traffic camera studies showing benefits.  A report by the Transportation Research Board states: “In many cases, the flaw in the analysis was the lack of a proper control group.”  In some cities, traffic accidents increased after the addition of cameras, as the NMA’s website documents.

A version of this article was printed in the Boulder Daily Camera on July 2, 2011.

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