Print and Web Reviews

Safety of -light cameras questioned

By Jonathan Miller

On a perfectly clear day in October, Carla Correa drove her Honda Civic toward an intersection in Baltimore. When the light turned yellow, she did not cruise through. She hit the brakes.

Seconds later, a truck rammed her from behind, and her car was wrecked.

Why would she do such a thing? The answer could be found in a box mounted on a nearby post, with a lens pointed at her license plate.

“It’s an intersection that I’ve been through a million times before, and I knew that it was a quick yellow light,” Correa, a confessed neurotic when it comes to getting a ticket, said in a telephone interview.

Correa, 25, also knew that the intersection was equipped with a camera. “And when I saw the yellow, I freaked out.”

Though unhurt, Correa has made a resolution: from now on, if it seems the light is about to turn red, she is going to run it. “If I hadn’t known there was a red-light camera there, I would have gone through,” she said. “Every time I see the red-light camera, I’m terrified by it. It’s a…ticket.” And that ticket would cost her $75.

Her experience is not an anomaly. Cameras like the one she spotted are now in use 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 Correa’s.

In addition, there has been the 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. Virginia’s legislature is considering whether to renew a law, expiring in July, that permits the cameras, used in six Virginia cities.

Despite the problems, many cities, including Philadelphia and Cincinnati, are moving forward in installing automated red-light cameras. Many others couldn’t be happier with the technology. “We think it’s doing a wonderful job,” said Steve Galgano, executive director of engineering in the division of the Department of Transportation in New York City, where 50 such cameras are in operation–along with 200 decoys–at periodically changing locations.

The story of the red-light camera is one of technology, safety, politics, behavior modification–and unintended consequences.

Some contend that revenue has trumped safety.

“I disapprove of the privatization of a function,” said Mark Kleinschmidt, a city councilman in Chapel Hill, N.C., where a private contractor not only installed the camera system but also carried out the initial screening of potential violations. Last year, Kleinschmidt persuaded a slim majority of his colleagues to end the program after four months.

“I don’t think we should bid it out to a corporation; it’s strictly a function,” he said. “Then there’s this distaste in the minds of many, that the whole concept is a corporate moneymaking scheme.”

For their part, camera-equipped cities and the private companies that contract with them dismiss such claims, saying the cameras have reduced violations. The largest provider in the country, Affiliated Computer Services, has 55 clients in the United States and Canada, including San Diego and Washington, D.C. It provides camera systems and in some cases administers the processing of citations. The cameras first made their appearance in Europe and Australia in the 1970s, but came to the United States only in 1993, when, with little fanfare or warning, New York City started installing them.

Red-light deaths

According to the National Highway Safety Administration, which endorses the camera systems’ use, 1,000 people are killed each year in red-light violations. Advocates of the cameras have championed them as effective tools in reducing accidents and deaths, freeing officers to perform other crime-fighting duties, and as an efficient way to raise revenue in the process.

When Mayor Anthony Williams of Washington, D.C., acknowledged that twofold aim in 2002–“The cameras are about safety and revenue,” he said–his comments outraged AAA, which withdrew its support for the camera program there. About 120 cities in 18 states and the District of Columbia now use the cameras, according to statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an enthusiastic backer of the cameras that receives all of its financing from insurers.

“We’ve been able to document clearly that red-light running is a problem,” said Richard Retting, a senior transportation engineer at the institute and an author of several studies on the subject. The cameras “are very effective tools for enhancing safety consistently,” he said, adding: “Drivers know what to expect. They know if they break a law, there’ll be a consequence.”

That consequence is a ticket in the mail. Here is the chain of events before that happens: In most cases, a magnetic coil is embedded in the pavement just before an intersection. When the light turns red, this activates the coil, which helps the system record any vehicle that rolls over the coil, and its speed. A photo is snapped of the license plate, sometimes from both the front and the back. (In California the driver’s face is photographed.) Then the company or local officials, or both, review the image, and the ticket is sent out.

Officials at Affiliated Computer Services say they are developing laser technology that would be aimed at cars. If effective, it could replace the coil system. A pilot program in several cities will be introduced in the next few months, but officials declined to name the cities.

Some drivers have escalated the technological arms race by using simple sprays and shields that they believe obscure the license plates when photographed. The sprays, called Photoblocker, cost $20 to $30. The drivers who swear by them claim that they have run red lights and not received tickets. Officials at Affiliated say that studies conducted by the company show the sprays to be ineffective. Nonetheless, many states, like Maryland, now specifically outlaw the use of them.

A shakedown?
The resistance to the cameras is not just at the individual level, however.

Organizations like the National Motorists Association, a drivers’ advocacy group based in Wisconsin, denounce the use of cameras. “It violates due process,” said Greg Mauz, a truck driver from Florida and researcher for the association, “because it assumes you’re guilty until proven innocent.” Roger Hedgecock, a former mayor of San Diego who is now a radio talk show host there, called the cameras an old-fashioned shakedown.

In a court case that resulted in the dismissal of nearly 300 tickets in 2001, a former employee testified that Lockheed Martin IMS, which operated the San Diego system, regularly scouted intersections in some cities based on high volume, not locations that were most accident-prone. Documents revealed that officials sought locations with steep gradients and short yellow-light times.

A California Department of Transportation auditor’s report in 2002 concluded that the yellow-light duration at two camera-equipped intersections in San Diego had been shortened, but said this had been a mistake. Thousands of drivers were ticketed, though a handful won dismissals. The city’s camera program was suspended in 2001, but has since resumed.

Today, officials at Affiliated Computer Services, which purchased Lockheed Martin IMS in August 2001 for $825 million, acknowledge the past troubles in San Diego. “It was a breakdown in communication with us–the vendor–and the department of transportation,” said Maurice Hannigan, a vice president at the company.

To reverse some of the ill wills, the company says it has restructured its contracts with cities to avoid any perception that it would benefit from maximizing the number of citations. Instead of receiving a share of the fines, Hannigan said, the company is now typically paid a flat monthly fee.

Costly tickets

Even when the fines go solely to the public coffers, the tickets can be costly. In Sacramento, the maximum penalty for running a red light is $351. Those numbers add up. Even in Washington, D.C., where the fine is $75, the city has collected $28.9 million since installing the cameras in 1999, according to the city’s Web site. (In some jurisdictions, violators also have points added to their record, which can increase their insurance rates.)

Until recently, findings on the effectiveness of cameras have been mixed at best. One of the most-cited studies, performed by Retting of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, found that crashes decreased at all intersections in Oxnard, Calif., by 5.4 percent after cameras were installed at some locations. Retting did not look specifically at intersections with the cameras, arguing that a spillover effect from the camera intersections would affect the data at all intersections.

Studies elsewhere, however, 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 safety,” the report’s authors concluded.

But studies to be presented at a transportation conference next week in Washington, D.C., by two researchers, Forrest Council and Bhagwant Persaud, reach a more nuanced conclusion. They found that rear-endings had gone up nearly 15 percent after cameras were installed in seven cities, with injuries from such accidents up 24 percent. Right-angle crashes declined by 24 percent, with injuries down nearly 16 percent. Weighing the economic impact and severity of injuries, they found the overall effect positive.

Or as Hannigan of Affiliated put it: “Would you rather have someone coming at you at 40 miles an hour, going through your window, or rear-ending you at 10?”

Entire contents, Copyright © 2005 The New York Times. All rights reserved.

Copyright ©1995-2005 CNET Networks, Inc. All rights reserved.