I have been a supporter of cameras at traffic lights to catch people who run red lights. It seemed like an impartial way to catch offenders who indulged in this dangerous practice because the camera did not care about your gender, age, ethnicity, class, type of car, or other factors that might cause a traffic police officer to decide whether to issue a ticket or not. Furthermore, it seems like a waste of time to have police hanging around at intersections doing something that a machine could do better when they could be doing more important things like preventing crime or catching criminals.
But as with many good ideas, financial interests subvert it. Some commenters to my above post pointed out that there were technical problems and, even worse, that by fiddling with the light times, drivers could be entrapped. Some evidence has come to light to support the latter charge. Some municipalities are apparently abusing the system to raise revenue by surreptitiously reducing the length of time that the lights are yellow, resulting in a sharp increase in tickets.
While not new, the profit-driven development continues across the country, with private companies like Redflex Traffic Systems reaping the rewards. In February, the city of Fremont, California, pledged it would refund at least $490,000 in tickets to drivers after it was revealed that for a period of time in 2016, yellow-light times at two key intersections were shorted from 4.7 to 4 seconds, driving an increase in tickets. Each of those intersections was outfitted with red-light cameras run by Redflex Traffic Systems.
According to TheNewspaper.com, the slight variation in yellow light time had a tremendous impact. “Increasing the yellow time by 0.7 seconds in 2015 slashed the number of tickets issued at [the intersection of Mowry Avenue and] Farwell Drive by 77 percent, and shortening it back to 4.0 seconds in February 2016 caused a 445 percent spike in ticketing,” states the publication. “At [the intersection of Mowry Avenue and] Blacow Road, the change to a 4.7 second yellow slashed violations by 68 percent. Shortening it back to 4.0 seconds sent violations skyward by 883 percent. In November 2016, the city decided to switch back to the 4.7 second yellow time for undisclosed reasons.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago was another one who quietly reduced yellow light times in his city and was forced to reverse himself after an outcry..
What about the benefits in safety due to the cameras?
A 2014 study commissioned by the Chicago Tribune determined that the city’s red lights “fail to deliver the dramatic safety benefits long claimed by City Hall.”
“Emanuel has credited the cameras for a 47 percent reduction in dangerous right-angle, or ‘T-bone,’ crashes,” note reporters David Kidwell and Alex Richards. “But the Tribune study, which accounted for declining accident rates in recent years as well as other confounding factors, found cameras reduced right-angle crashes that caused injuries by just 15 percent. At the same time, the study calculated a corresponding 22 percent increase in rear-end crashes that caused injuries, illustrating a trade-off between the cameras’ costs and benefits.”
But there were some safety benefits and it seems like a shame to abandon those because of some people’s greed. It seems like mandating by law what the yellow light times should be (allowing for some variability due to contingent factors) and making those times public so that anyone could check that cities were not secretly fiddling with it later might preserve the benefits of cameras without tricking motorists.