As Pennsylvania legislators prepare to decide whether Pittsburgh and certain other municipalities can install cameras at intersections to catch motorists going through red lights, Pennsylvania citizens should put up a stop sign.
Advocates of red-light cameras that automatically generate traffic tickets say they have proved successful in preventing accidents and lowering traffic fatalities, including in Philadelphia, where they were first installed in 2005.
But this is not so.
Where the cameras do succeed is in raising revenue for governments and camera vendors. They do not improve road safety.
According to an October report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "The number of auto accidents has increased at many Philadelphia intersections since the installation of 90 red-light cameras over the last six years, according to police data. The total number of accidents was up 12 percent for the 15 intersections that have had cameras for at least a year. ... An increase in crashes may be due to drivers stopping abruptly to avoid running a red light and being struck from behind, police said."
The Philadelphia Parking Authority, which runs the camera program, disputes the police figures and says it is issuing fewer tickets at intersections with cameras because drivers are being more careful. But even a recent parking authority analysis at three intersections with cameras found that, while accidents fell by 8.5 percent, accidents involving injuries rose by 8 percent. That is hardly evidence of an effective program.
In the meantime, motorists in Philadelphia have paid $45.3 million in fines since 2005, with $24.2 million going to pay for operating the program, mainly to the parking authority and the Arizona company that installs and maintains the cameras.
Last October, the state House Transportation Committee held a hearing in Harrisburg to take testimony on red-light cameras. The Philadelphia police department was not invited to testify. All but one person who testified was from an organization that directly or indirectly shares in the millions of dollars of camera revenue.
Only I, speaking for the National Motorists Association, talked about the volumes of evidence showing that red-light cameras often cause more accidents, and that using longer yellow-light intervals can prevent far more violations than cameras. But that simple safety solution is not profitable.
Studies by police departments and media in many cities have found that red-light cameras either do little to reduce accidents or are actually correlated with more accidents.
Kansas City police infuriated that city's camera vendor in January when it released a study of intersections with cameras that concluded, "Accidents went up at some locations and down in others without any real clear patterns."
In 2009, Los Angeles' KCAL-TV fact-checked city claims that red-light cameras had reduced accidents and found that at 20 of 32 intersections studied, accidents increased.
In 2005, The Washington Post reported: "The District's red-light cameras have generated more than 500,000 violations and $32 million in fines over the past six years. City officials credit them with making busy roads safer. But a Washington Post analysis of crash statistics shows that the number of accidents has gone up at intersections with the cameras. The increase is the same or worse than at traffic signals without the devices."
And the list goes on.
Camera companies often show videos depicting terrible T-bone accidents to sell their products. But they don't explain the irony that the videos are taken by stop-light cameras that did not prevent the accidents.
Cities would do better by making sure that their yellow lights are long enough -- at least 4 seconds, and longer where approach speeds are high -- as this allows more time for traffic to clear through intersections. Having a momentary period of red lights in all directions can help, too.
If Philadelphia added another 1 second to the yellow intervals on its stop lights, violations likely would drop so far that each camera no longer would generate enough revenue to cover its lease fee of $4,545 per month. In most cases, adding a second to yellow lights drops violations by 60 percent or more. Norcross, Ga., ended its red-light camera program after lengthened yellow lights reduced violations by 80 percent.
The list of cities where voters or officials have dropped red-light camera programs since 2010 is growing. It includes Houston and Dayton in Texas, Garfield Heights and Ashtabula in Ohio, and Los Angeles, Loma Linda and 34 other cities in California.
Fifteen states now ban red-light and other automated ticketing cameras, including Michigan, Minnesota, West Virginia and Wisconsin. A bill to ban them is pending in New Jersey.
The forces pushing for red-light camera programs in Pittsburgh and other cities, plus those seeking extension of the program in Philadelphia, may be as motivated by the revenue to be collected as by genuine safety concerns. Greater safety can be achieved with proper traffic engineering.
If you care about traffic safety and fairness in traffic law enforcement, please contact your state and local representatives and tell them you do not want red-light cameras in Pittsburgh or any other city in Pennsylvania. Ask them to do their homework.
James C. Walker is executive director of the National Motorists Association Foundation, which is based in Waunakee, Wis. (www.motorists.org). First Published June 25, 2012 12:00 AM