Red light cameras and speed cameras are in the news lately thanks to events in both the U.S. and the U.K. In the U.K., the Daily Mail reported that municipalities were turning off their speed cameras – while leaving them in place – because of budget cuts. This would not normally warrant news coverage except for the fact that the local authorities subsequently reported declines in accidents and fatalities. In other words, even without the devices working, the municipalities were achieving the intended outcome of reduced accidents and injuries.
In the U.S., an ongoing struggle is underway in Houston,TX where a referendum narrowly passed calling for the removal of red light cameras, which continue to function and record violations though without issuing citations. The company that installed the cameras in Houston, American Traffic Solutions, has reported a spike in violations, since the shut off.
Houston is not alone. Various states and local governments are considering adding or removing red light and/or speed cameras. And the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) weighed in early last week with a report validating the effectiveness of red light cameras in reducing fatalities.
As usual, the IIHS report – like other traffic-related studies – experienced widespread criticism for a wide range of fairly obvious reasons. The report’s conclusion, that red light cameras save lives, was far from radical, but the methodology left it open to challenge. Far from laying the issue to rest, the report only further inflamed opponents. (The report showed declines in traffic fatalities for cities that employed at least some red light cameras vs. those that did not.)
With more than 6,000 speed and red light cameras in the U.K., more than 7,000 such cameras in the U.S. (according to Photoenforced.com) and tens of thousands of these cameras in use around the world, one would assume that some one or some organization somewhere would have conducted a definitive study of the efficacy of these systems. Unfortunately this is not the case.
A study of studies published by the Cochrane Library reviewed 35 studies of speed cameras finding a relative reduction in average speed ranging from 1% to 15% and the reduction in proportion of vehicles speeding ranging from 14% to 65%. “In the vicinity of camera sites, the pre/post reductions ranged from 8% to 49% for all crashes and 11% to 44% for fatal and serious injury crashes. Compared with controls, the relative improvement in pre/post injury crash proportions range from 8% to 50%.”
But this report complained about the quality of available research and the resulting inability to draw actionable conclusions regarding best practices and anticipated outcomes. Critics of the IIHS study, in particular, have pointed out that the organization is supported by the auto insurance industry which stands to benefit from the raising of insurance rates in those jurisdictions where red light camera infractions are reported to the local licensing authorities and, by extension, the insurance companies.
The issue is becoming even more complex as cameras are increasingly used to identify a growing variety of infractions. In Washington, DC, for example, the city announced last week that its 30 speed cameras and 50 red-light cameras will be augmented with “sleeker, smaller and easier-to-deploy” cameras for enforcing other traffic laws such as failing to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk, blocking intersections and for truck-height-restriction violations.
Cameras have also been used to identify motorists passing stopped school buses, obstructing street sweepers and for grade crossing violations. Photoenforced.com, which maintains and licenses a database of enforcement cameras, reports a 25% annual increase in the number of cameras and tracks cameras used for illegal right turn enforcement as well as cameras employed for tracking multiple infraction types.
There are several questions at stake, most of which can be resolved with appropriate, uniform camera deployment strategies based on and guided by sound research. The problems with current implementations include:
The perception that the cameras are employed solely to raise revenue
The perception that the cameras benefit the contractor and the budget of the local municipality at the expense of drivers
Confusion regarding the magnitude in the reduction in violations, crashes, injuries and fatalities
The ability of consumers to be notified of the existence of fixed and mobile cameras
The availability of camera-enforced violation information to licensing and insurance authorities
The availability of fixed and mobile camera-enforcement locations for integration in embedded and mobile navigation devices
The use of revenue from fines
The belief that red-light cameras – while helping to prevent so-called T-bone accidents, actually cause an increase in rear-end collisions
The charge that automated enforcement impedes due process
The biggest and loudest beef that drivers have with speed and red-light enforcement cameras is that they are perceived as a money raising scam by local authorities in cahoots with richly-rewarded contractors and collaterally benefiting insurance companies. Sometimes this is due to the size of the fines (as high as $500 in California) or by the placement of the cameras in high-traffic, low-accident areas.
Drivers also feel that there is some unfairness and lack of due process due to the time lag involved in the delivery of the citation. In the words of an American Automobile Association (AAA) spokesperson: “With notices of automated tickets sent out weeks and sometimes months after the event, it’s nearly impossible for a person to defend themselves. Also, the cameras do nothing to remove a speeder from the road who may be truly reckless, criminal, suffering through a mechanical flaw, and who might pose a danger to others or him or her self.”
Actually, this same AAA representative also noted that “visible traffic enforcement officers in marked cars remain the best deterrent to speeding.” “The presence of marked vehicles helps assure motorists that law enforcement aid is available for those in need. Automated enforcement undermines public trust when policy makers turn to such methods as a revenue source for budgets in lieu of raising taxes or cutting spending.”
Almost any technology that has been proven to save lives or reduce infractions by whatever proportion is worthy of serious evaluation. A recent commentary published by the Institute for Transport Engineers (ITE) provides a roster of best practices for red-light camera deployment including:
Sites for enforcement cameras should be selected by government authorities and based on accident histories or other criteria in an open manner and with careful documentation;
“Deterrence should be emphasized through signing and public information”
“Avoid excessive penalties and late fees”
“Include … stakeholders in planning
Take human and environmental factors into account
Avoid appearance of “revenue motive”
Pre-empt legal challenges
Evaluate program performance
The ITE recommendations are more detailed than what I have described above, but do not go far enough. New deployments should be preceded by a thorough analysis of prevailing traffic conditions under a variety of circumstances and installation should be followed by an equivalent analysis to at least try to establish cause and effect; camera locations should be fully and completely disclosed to drivers; insurance companies should not have access to these infractions (which therefore also should be kept off a driver’s record) and resulting revenues should be targeted at the victims of traffic accidents.
In Houston, TX, there is an almost comical scenario unfolding where red-light cameras, which are not recording tickets, are still registering violations, including 3,811 red-light runners at one busy intersection in January 2011 vs. 2,770 in January 2010, a 38% increase. It is also worth noting that in a single week in January 2011 Houston police officers issued 145 tickets vs. the 667 average daily citations issued when the cameras were active. According to a press report the police department attributed the lower number to restrictions on officer overtime.
There is a manpower component to the traffic camera proposition. As the chief of police in Washington, DC, told the Washington Post: “The technology gives us the capability to do additional types of enforcement. I need to get my police officers fighting crime in neighborhoods. If I can have an automated system take the place of what 100 police officers could do and make the work safer for police officers, why wouldn't I?"
The last piece of the puzzle – after validating the research and shifting officers to more effective and productive activities – is the question of public relations. Speed and red-light cameras have a bad name. More complete disclosure of these camera locations will put the driving public’s mind at ease.
There are a variety of solutions for incorporating fixed and mobile red-light and speed camera information into mobile device navigation systems – including crowd-sourcing systems from Trapster (recently acquired by Nokia Navteq), TomTom and Coyote among others. But it has so far been impossible to get these alerts included in embedded navigation systems.
If the goal of deploying these cameras is to save lives and ensure compliance with safety measures it only seems logical that drivers should have access to this public information. So, just as drivers may be alerted to accident “blackspots,” as in the case of some connected TomTom devices, they should also be able to get notifications of upcoming speed and red-light cameras on their phones and in their vehicle navigation systems.
OEMs have not integrated these data points thus far for two key reasons: the locations change and in some jurisdictions, such as Germany and Switzerland, it is illegal to have these locations in navigation systems. I say it is time for law enforcement to be more open about their speed and red-light enforcement activities with the objective of building citizen support for the use of cameras for the enhanced safety of all.
Finally, public authorities can fully silence their critics by diverting the revenue from these cameras to the families of crash victims. There is no rationale for tossing these revenues into the general fund and the good will that will come from this use of the proceeds will cement consumer support.
Speed and red-light cameras are proliferating around the world with the avowed objective of saving lives. In fact, cameras are being used to identify a growing range of violation types.
Because of inconsistent implementation and inadequate research it is impossible to accurately quantify the efficacy of these measures. At the same time, consumers are upset at the exorbitant fines and unexpected implementations. By supporting deployments with adequate research, fully disclosed camera locations and by shifting the fine and fee proceeds to accident victims, municipalities will build strong public support. At the same time, the safer and more effective deployment of these cameras will allow police officers to focus on higher priority tasks.
With disclosure, consumers will finally get camera location notifications – legally in all geographies – in their cars and on their navigation systems. In the meantime, the data will still be accessible in apps from Trapster and Coyote and on various portable navigation devices – yet another advantage mobile devices will continue to have over embedded systems.