June 22, 2011 in City

Shawn Vestal: Dollars clarify debate over red-light cameras

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Christopher Anderson photoBuy this photo

Cameras monitor the Division Street and Sprague Avenue intersection for red-light violators.
(Full-size photo)

With every new turn in the city’s red-light camera experience, the discovery is made all over again.

Aha! It really is all about the money!

Well, duh. The only evidence to the contrary – ever – was the dubious assertions of politicians. Which are now crumbling before the latest onrushing budget train.

So, yeah. Red-light cameras are a big, gassy cash cow. But if there ever was a time to milk it – given that the city’s other cash animals are gnats and minnows – it’s now.

I’m pretty undecided so far about the necessity of this program on other grounds. A Spokane County judge has ruled that the push-button method of officers “signing” tickets produced in Arizona is unlawful – which may not be a major hurdle, but is the kind of technical legality you run into with an automated law-enforcement program run by an out-of-state company.

Spokane seems to be seeing a reduction in crashes and violations at the intersections with the cameras, though the changes are modest and traffic stats typically fluctuate. City officials say it’s working. But if you spend any time trying to sort out the effectiveness of the cameras, the only rock-solid thing you can say is this: Be wary of drawing conclusions.

There’s a number for every argument, and an argument against every number.

Meanwhile, some cities are seeing awfully good results with a very simple, non-revenue-producing strategy: taking down the cameras and extending the duration of yellow lights.

In Loma Linda, Calif., the city dumped cameras after seeing that their “straight-through” red-light violations plummeted when it added one second to yellow light times. Something similar happened in Fairfax County, Va., a few years back. Los Angeles is now on the verge of getting rid of cameras as well.

Here’s the thing. Those cities also weren’t making money on the program. That tends to influence opinions about the cameras’ effectiveness.

In Spokane, the cameras are still bringing in the dough. And for whatever perfectly valid objections one might raise, there’s also a perfectly desperate need for cops and libraries and pothole fodder. So, yes, Mayor Mary Verner’s proposal to raid the red-light funds for budget hole-plugging is exactly what we were so clearly told would not happen.

But the city’s budget has been full of lousy choices lately. This deal with this devil seems less than deplorable.

According to a Police Department briefing prepared in March, almost $650,000 was pumped into the city’s “traffic calming” fund in 2009 and 2010 from camera tickets. That’s slightly more than the company that runs the program, American Traffic Solutions, was paid.

In the report, Officer Teresa Fuller cited statistics that showed a decrease in violations and collisions at intersections with cameras, though figures for some of them are very preliminary. At Division and Francis, for example, the city saw a small increase in accidents after the first two years, from 15 to 18 – perhaps influenced by an increase in traffic from nearby roadwork – but then a drop to just four collisions last year. Of course, just a few years before the cameras were added, the number of wrecks there was three.

Fuller is less impressed with the yellow-light idea than I am. For one thing, the city did increase its yellow lights to four seconds at intersections with the cameras. For another, drivers simply get used to yellow lights and adjust their stopping times, she said.

“It has been shown across the country that you can increase the yellow-light time a second or two, and people get used to it,” she said.

This seems at least arguable. Cities that have shown improvements in yellow-light experiments have gone to five seconds or longer. And Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association, points to studies that suggest yellow-light extension is very effective.

Biller, whose organization opposes the cameras, argues they are unfair to motorists – hauling in cash for lots of split-second red-light infractions and doing very little to offset the worst kinds of crashes, where motorists blow through lights several seconds late.

The Washington Post undertook an analysis of District of Columbia cameras in 2005 and found intersections with the cameras were no safer. A Los Angeles television station undertook a similar project and found police had dramatically overstated safety gains.

On the other hand, a new study by the pro-camera Insurance Institute for Highway Safety claimed to show that the cameras reduced fatal accidents from red-light running by an estimated 24 percent. This study seems persuasive at first glance – it compares data from 1992-96 with 2004-08 in 99 cities. But when you look carefully, what emerges is a picture of radical unsummarizability.

Between the two time periods, 14 cities adopted red-light cameras and 48 did not. The study analyzed per-capita fatal crash rates citywide, not at specific intersections. The largest single improvement in the crash rate was a drop of 100 percent in Jersey City – a place without a camera program. It’s about exactly the same rate of change as seen in Raleigh, N.C. – whose fatal crash rate rose 99 percent despite the presence of red-light cameras.

The variation from city to city is so great as to make the averages almost meaningless. As with so much of what the “studies show” about red-light cameras, the numbers are all over the place.

Except, for the time being, on Spokane’s bottom line.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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