A Lie and a Sham!
Sunday 12 June 2011 - 08:18 am.
The Los Angeles Police Commission has voted to end its contract with a vendor that supplies red-light photo-enforcement cameras used at a number of the City’s major intersections. L.A. is the country’s 2nd-largest city. If this had occurred in some little burg in Montana or Maine, it would not have nearly the same significance. This is a big deal!
When red-light cameras were first introduced, I came out foursquare against them, and my friends and family know that I’ve held this position from the start. The local newspaper told me all I needed to know. The program was touted as a great step forward in enhancing safety at intersections. A contingent of “experts” were brought forth to expound on the virtues of these systems, how they would put a stop to the supposed “carnage” at major intersections, and teach scofflaws a much-needed lesson! But the article also went on to explain the “functional” aspects of these systems, and the Devil, of course, is always in the details.
The cameras were not going to be owned or operated by the jurisdictions in which they functioned. Rather, they would be leased from a vendor who would contract with the jurisdiction to maintain the cameras, replace defective or worn units, and handle the mailing of citations to those found running stoplights. The cameras would, if you believed the vendor’s sales pitches, enhance traffic safety, generate revenue, and provide the jurisdiction with an almost-foolproof means to punish every “offender,” day-and-night, whether the police were present, or not. On the face of it, it sounded like a good deal for the public and the cities where the cameras were installed.
But, in practice, things weren’t quite so rosy. People are very adaptable. Once it was known which intersections had cameras, folks made an effort to “defeat” the cameras by any means at their disposal. The easiest, of course, was not to run the red lights. And, given the original signal timing this was fairly easy to do, with just a bit more attention on the individual driver’s part.
The signal timing, remember, had been exhaustively worked out by traffic engineers, based on the specific conditions of a given intersection (or traffic corridor) to provide an almost-ideal balance of efficient traffic movement and driver/passenger safety within those movements. The fact that accidents still occurred at some intersections, and that some folks did occasionally run a red light, was reflective of the traffic volumes the roadways were carrying. The “law of averages” comes into play, here. Traverse any stretch of highway or group of intersections with enough frequency, and you’re raising your odds of being involved in an incident at that site. It’s a risk factor we live with in regard to many things in our daily lives, not just in our use of motor vehicles, but few of us want to go back to the 18th century to try to reverse the possibilities! There were a lot of ways to get hurt then, too!
In any case, it soon became evident to the vendors, and the cities who been assured of near-perfect law enforcement and easy money, that people were adapting far too well to the new, electronic “cops.” The camera systems were taking too long to live up to the expectations the vendors had promised, if they ever did, and revenues fell far short of predictions. So, the cities were pretty bothered and the vendors, being for-profit entities, were bothered in their own right.
Most governments, and in these cases the government-hired vendors, are prone to regarding the citizenry as an unchanging, invariable “bloc,” that acts in a predictable fashion at all times. So, when the citizens adapted, the vendors pretty much panicked. They’d promised a lot, and stood to lose a great deal & look like fools in the process!
So, very quietly, the vendors began “lobbying” the jurisdictions to adjust the signal timing at the intersections that were camera-monitored. They reduced the timing incrementally, until they got it to a point where almost no “yellow” signal existed. The lights would flash from green to red in an instant, and a driver, even an attentive one, could not stop safely. So, they would proceed through the signal, and be tagged by the violation camera. Revenues went up, to the delight of the vendors and the jurisdictions. In many cases, the price for running a red light was raised to very-punitive levels (currently, June of 2011, in Los Angeles, they are $476.00 each). Paying one or two of those, and also collecting points against your driver’s license, was too much for most folks. So, people adapted again, to the detriment of all concerned. Now, drivers “stood on their brakes” the moment the green light began to fade. And, rear-impact accidents immediately went up, at almost all the monitored intersections. People were suffering severe injuries by trying not to run the lights, and the whole system was set up specifically to force people to do just that, run the lights. A terrible “Catch 22,” situation.
In an earlier segment of my life, I spent a number of years as a transportation planner. Two of my former employers were committed to having their people stay really “up-to-date” in our chosen discipline. To that end, they sent my colleagues and I to the annual Transportation Research Board (TRB) meetings every year. TRB is held in Washington, D.C. each January. The TRB seminars consist of a wide-range of small (well, 100 people, or less) gatherings where leading traffic engineers, transportation planners, and university professors presented the latest findings from their field studies. I checked the agenda one year, and found a session where the entire presentation would be about red-light cameras. I made it my business to attend.
The session stared with presentations by a couple of city managers and one police chief, from Howard County, Maryland. These three supported red-light cameras, convinced that their jurisdictions were safer with these systems. They erred, however, by showing graphics that displayed their “success” in the form of cold, hard numbers. Their glowing words didn’t glow quite so brightly, at that point. In response to questions from some of us in the audience, they admitted that recent reductions in accidents at these intersections had occurred after they’d had to “back-track” considerably on the amount of time each signal spent in the yellow phase. Prior to that, the numbers showed substantial increases in accidents from the base level, the “pre-camera” levels. To their credit, they weren’t trying to “candy-coat” any of this. One of them admitted, in fact, that they’d had to go “toe-to-toe” with their vendor, telling them in no uncertain terms that they were not about to sacrifice safe-passage through these intersections on the altar of revenue-enhancement. Kudos to them for at least acknowledging the “dark side” of this type of traffic-monitoring!
Following these gentlemen, we had the pleasure of listening to a professor from Wayne State University, and I believe he taught at the Dearborn, Michigan, campus. I don’t remember this fine man’s name, and I wish I did, because he was a great teacher! He and his graduate & undergrad students had spent several years studying 12 intersections along Seven-Mile Road, in Detroit. More than half of the 12 intersections had been outfitted with red-light cameras at some point during that period.
They’d studied exhaustively, accounting for every variable they could possibly fit in to their matrix. Traffic counts, light-timing, weather conditions (lots of snow and ice in Michigan, of course), peak and off-peak periods, everything was accounted for. In the end, the findings were clear; red-light cameras had a retrograde effect, causing more accidents, sometimes a lot more accidents, than un-monitored intersections. The study found that the greatest single action that could be taken to reduce accidents was to allow two-seconds of yellow light time, in both directions. If the delay resulted in someone’s vehicle being able to “get through” the intersection a shade too late (running the red light), it generally did so without incident, for the vehicles at right angles to that vehicle had not yet begun to move. He’d presented the findings of his study to the City of Detroit, and the cameras were subsequently removed from all of the intersections on Seven-Mile. It was a tacit admission that the red-light cameras, rather than preventing collisions, were, with their miniscule signal-timing intervals, actually increasing the number and severity of collisions.
In one presentation, this man had laid waste to the entire red-light camera “movement.” I could never make peace with the things, anyway. It was sobering to see such conclusive evidence that they were, as their critics had charged, “…all about the money,” and to Hell with the people involved in the almost-inevitable crashes. Proponents of these systems and, of course, the camera vendors, called this “collateral-damage,” saying such trivial matters shouldn’t stand in the way of law-enforcement & revenue collection!
That’s why I’m so pleased to be reading this article about the vote taken by the Los Angeles Police Commission. The vote was 5-0 in ending the City’s contract with their red-light camera vendor and removing the cameras from the City. Members of the Commission had reviewed the contract extensively, and received public input for many weeks prior to reaching this decision. The Executive Director of a group called “Safer Streets LA,” provided Commissioners with, per the article, “…detailed rebuttals of the claim that accidents were reduced where cameras were installed.” One woman testified that the camera-type enforcement eliminated one basic legal right we possess in our country, and that is to “face your accuser.” She’s solidly correct, too!
In any case, it’s heartening to know that the 2nd largest municipality in the U.S. is planning to jettison these systems. They’ve been operating in LA for more than a decade, so there’s been ample time for the City to evaluate the “good and bad” aspects. Ultimately, there’s more bad than good, and I salute the City for being big enough to admit that this venture was/is not successful & they’re going to put it to rest.
The money angle of this whole red-light camera scenario had to be mentioned, as it’s hard to tell the tale, otherwise. My main concern is, as always, with people being hurt and injured, not with the dollars involved.
In closing, I’ll just say this: If red-light timing has to be rigged to the extent that crashes occur with greater frequency, just so the camera vendors can convince their customers, the local governments, that the program is “working,” then something is very wrong. As a citizen and human being, I want no part of this type of traffic “management.” Those cameras are a lie and a sham! I said so almost 20 years ago, and I’ll keep doing so!
Oh, if you’d like to read the article I used as my present-day information source for this effort, here it is:
But, as for my memories from my sessions at the TRB, well, you just had to be there!