RLC 2.0: The Hunt for Red Light Cameras – Part Three
By Reggie Connell/ Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice
Red light cameras are a hot topic, and not just in Apopka.
Do a Google search of “red light cameras” and you get 387,000,000 results. 438 municipalities, including 36 out of the 50 most populous cities in the United States, have deployed a red light camera program at some point in the last decade. Consequently, there is a lot of data, and a lot of studies that say red light cameras are beneficial, and that they are not.
The good, the bad, and the ugly of RLC’s are out there for all to see and reference.
Two studies, done by Northwestern University and Case Western Reserve University, stood out to me for several reasons:
- They were data driven.
- They were current.
- They were comprehensive.
- They seem to have no stake in the outcome and were therefore objective.
- Their findings sometimes confirmed one another but had significantly different conclusions.
In short, one study concludes that the RLC’s in Chicago reduces serious injury-type crashes at intersections, and improves public safety. The other study concludes that RLC’s primarily in Houston and two other large cities in Texas do not reduce the total number of vehicle accidents, the total number of individuals injured in accidents or the total number of incapacitating injuries that involve ambulance transport to a hospital.
I’ll let you read these two studies, and then discuss how I think they apply to Apopka at the conclusion.
In support of RLC’s:
Chicago’s red-light camera program has significant safety benefits
By Megan Fellman, Science, and Engineering Editor at Northwestern University
Chicago’s red-light cameras reduce serious injury crashes at intersections where they are placed and also have a measurable “spillover effect” that improves safety at intersections without cameras, according to a Northwestern University Transportation Center study released today (March 20, 2017).
The research team found the Chicago red-light camera (RLC) enforcement program delivers significant safety benefits, and the 104-page report provides several recommendations to enhance the program’s performance.
The report provides tools and analysis that can help the city identify existing and potential camera locations requiring further attention and notes that enforcing RLC violations occurring within fractions of a second after the light turns red might not provide significant safety benefits.
Hani S. Mahmassani, director of the Transportation Center, led the study on the effectiveness of the RLC program using available safety data. The team, including an expert advisory panel of traffic safety experts from across the country, conducted a rigorous analysis of existing RLC enforcement practices before arriving at its recommendations.
Based on the analysis, the report recommends continuation of the program. “Quantitative studies conducted in this project demonstrate significant safety benefits of the current RLC program,” the report concluded.
The study was authorized by the Chicago City Council and commissioned by the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT). Commissioning the independent academic report was a major step CDOT took toward reforming the program in 2015 in cooperation with the City Council.
Mahmassani’s RLC study team, including Northwestern colleague Joseph L. Schofer, corroborated the findings of other national studies that have shown camera enforcement correlates with an overall decrease in injury-producing crashes.
Mahmassani is the William A. Patterson Distinguished Chair in Transportation in the McCormick School of Engineering. Schofer is a faculty associate of the Transportation Center and a professor of civil and environmental engineering and an associate dean at McCormick.
The report found that injury-producing crashes decreased by about 10 percent because of the camera program; more dangerous angle and/or turn crashes decreased by 19 percent. The study also found less dangerous and less frequent rear-end crashes increased by 14 percent, consistent with experience in other cities. For this portion of the study, the researchers used data from 2005 to 2007 (before red-light cameras were deployed) and data from 2010 to 2012 (after red-light cameras were mostly deployed).
Federally sponsored traffic safety research has shown that angle and turn crashes have a lost productivity cost to society that is about five times greater than the cost attributed to damage from rear-end crashes.
The Northwestern RLC researchers are the first to document that red-light cameras not only improve safety where they are placed but also improve behavior at intersections without cameras through a “spillover effect.” The researchers estimated the spillover effect by comparing before- and after-crash data at 85 intersections where RLCs were installed in 2008 and 2009 with crash data for 103 intersections that were not equipped with cameras.
In its study, the Northwestern University Transportation Center’s research team presented three key recommendations for strengthening the red-light camera enforcement program:
- The Transportation Center has provided the city of Chicago with tools and analysis that can help identify camera locations that require further study as to whether they are meeting the expected safety benefits. The tools also help identify locations that currently lack camera enforcement but could benefit from the placement of cameras. The researchers recommend that the city review crash and other data on a routine annual basis using criteria specified by the study team and consider removing some cameras and installing others in new locations.
- The study team found that enforcing violations that occur within fractions of a second after the light turns red might not provide significant safety benefits. The researchers note there is a legitimate “dilemma zone” faced by drivers as a light turns from yellow to red in which law-abiding drivers can be caught.
- The researchers suggested the city improve transparency and public acceptance of the program by augmenting and improving the public reporting of the program, by grounding the program in clear safety benefits and by coordinating with an overall traffic safety program in the city that is not only based on camera enforcement.
The scope of the Northwestern RLC study included performing a comprehensive assessment of existing practices and benchmarking them against national best practices.
Cameras can catch cars that run red lights, but that doesn’t make the streets safer
The automobile is a killer. In the U.S., 36,675 people died in traffic accidents in 2014. The year before, 2.3 million people were injured in traffic accidents.
During the past decade, over 438 U.S. municipalities, including 36 of the 50 most populous cities, have employed electronic monitoring programs in order to reduce the number of accidents. Red light camera programs specifically target drivers that run red lights.
In a study I co-authored with economist Paul J. Fisher, we examined all police-recorded traffic accidents for three large Texas cities over a 12-year period – hundreds of thousands of accidents. We found no evidence that red light cameras improve public safety. They don’t reduce the total number of vehicle accidents, the total number of individuals injured in accidents or the total number of incapacitating injuries that involve ambulance transport to a hospital.
In a red light camera program, a camera is installed in a location where it can take photos or video of vehicles as they pass through the intersection. City employees or private contractors then review the photos. If a vehicle is in the intersection when the light is red, then a ticket is sent to the person who registered the vehicle.
These programs aim to reduce cross-street collisions. The idea is that drivers, fearing a higher chance that they will be fined, will be more likely to stop, lowering the number of angles, or “T-bone,” accidents.
The evidence clearly shows that camera programs are effective at decreasing the number of vehicles running red lights. In one study in Virginia, red light cameras reduced the number of total drivers running red lights by 67 percent.
However, cameras can have contradictory effects on traffic safety. Some drivers who would have otherwise continued to proceed through the intersection when the light is yellow or red will now attempt to stop. That means that the number of accidents caused by vehicles not stopping at a red light will likely decrease.
But the number of accidents from stopping at a red light – such as rear-end accidents – is likely to increase. That’s not an inconsequential side effect. Some drivers will attempt to stop, accepting a higher risk of a non-angle accident like getting rear-ended, in order to avoid the expected fine.
The overall effect of a camera program on vehicle accidents and injuries depends on the net impact of these two effects. Overall driver safety could increase or decrease.
In our study, we focused on Houston, a major U.S. city that operated a large camera program at 66 intersections between 2006 and 2010.
One reason we chose Houston is to take advantage of the natural experiment that occurred when city residents passed a referendum in November 2010 to ban the cameras.
We accessed detailed accident information on every traffic accident in Texas from 2003 to 2014 through a public records information request. The data included the accident’s precise geocoded location; the type of accident; whether the driver ran a red light; and details of any injuries.
When the Houston cameras were removed, angle accidents increased by 26 percent. However, all other types of accidents decreased by 18 percent. Approximately one-third of all Houston intersection accidents are angle accidents. This suggests that the program’s drawbacks canceled out its benefits.
Our study showed no evidence that cameras reduce the total number of accidents. We estimate that total accidents are reduced by a statistically insignificant 3 percent after the cameras are turned off.
Likewise, there’s no evidence that the camera program reduced the number of traffic-related injuries or the likelihood of incurring an incapacitating injury.
The elevated number of traffic accidents at urban intersections is a serious public health issue. But our study shows that Houston’s camera program was ineffective in improving traffic safety. Electronic monitoring is not the solution.
So how does this apply to Apopka?
It’s difficult to compare Chicago to Houston and large cities in Texas, and even harder to compare Apopka to either. Perhaps the RLC’s are effective in Chicago, but not in Texas as both studies seem to suggest.
In my estimation, what these two studies conclude most of all is that municipalities are different, and what works on the streets of Chicago might not work on the streets of Houston. It also suggests that Apopka may need a similar study done by objective experts to conclude if RLC’s are in fact improving public safety.
As it turns out, the Northwestern study was authorized by the Chicago City Council and commissioned by the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT). Commissioning the independent academic report was a major step CDOT took toward reforming the program in 2015 in cooperation with the City Council.
That is a step the Apopka City Council should also take. There is over a decade of data to be studied about the RLC program, and before action is taken to end the program, Apopka should know the true, non-anecdotal, unvarnished truth. It would be my suggestion that the City Council commission a study of the RLC program by an uninterested third-party similar to those studies done in Chicago and Houston whether it passes or fails in tonight’s vote.
If an objective study concludes that the RLC program reduces serious crashes, saves lives and reduces injuries, I doubt 75% of Apopka would be against the program. If, however, the study concludes there’s no evidence that the RLC program reduced the number of traffic-related injuries or the likelihood of incurring an incapacitating injury, I would expect that number to rise closer to 100%.
Tonight’s public comments, discussion, and vote on the Apopka RLC program will be historic, loud, and passionate. There is no denying that. But let’s try to let data, statistics, and objectivity prevail and keep in mind most everyone associated with this issue wants what’s best for Apopka, which includes the City Council, the Apopka Police Department, the public speakers and the residents of this community.