Good intentions sometimes mask poor legislation. That’s the case under Florida’s red light camera law. Here’s why.
1. Automated traffic cameras are clearly an invasion of privacy. The citizens of Florida don’t want to be watched by cameras operated by government agencies or for-profit vendors. We believe that citizens do, indeed, have an expectation of privacy from Big Brother’s monitoring.
2. The cause of the problem, in most cases, is inadequate timing of traffic lights and an unwillingness on the part of the government to fix the problem. There’s a better, more effective solution than red light cameras. In other states, setting the clearance interval (the yellow-light period, plus the all-red period, if any) to accepted engineering standards has resulted in an immediate and permanent decrease in red light violations of over 90%. It requires no expensive equipment, very little expense to government entities and no interference in the life of the average motorist. There are other techniques, such as adding metal backers to traffic signals to make them more visible, but adjusting the clearance interval is the most effective.
That isn’t new information. In 2005, the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University found that when the yellow signal was one second shorter than the engineering standard, red-light violations increased 110%. Adding a second to the engineering standard brought a 53% reduction in violations and a 40% reduction in collisions.
In Palm Bay, Florida, a citizen insisted that the city correct the clearance interval at intersections with red light cameras. The number of tickets issued dropped 67 percent in the last months of 2013 and early 2014 after the city engineers increased the clearance interval by one second. That’s after several years of operating those cameras with no improvement in safety (see below). The engineers also extended the interval by one second at other intersections in the same city, making travel safer at those intersections, too.
3. In some cases, automated cameras have no safety effect at all or may lead to more accidents. According to a Florida Today article dated August 9, 2013, the Palm Bay City Manager and the Deputy Police Chief found “no statistical evidence that wrecks have decreased” with the use of red light cameras in that city. Also in 2013, the City of Palm Coast likewise found no safety benefit from red light cameras.
Researchers at the University of South Florida have reviewed national statistics. They reported in January, 2014, that they found no safety benefit at all from the camera scheme.
Retired Florida Highway Patrol officer Paul Henry says, “In October (2013), Clearwater, Florida, became the first city to release actual numbers of red light violation crashes for before and after use of the camera scheme. In that city, they doubled from 3 to 6, and the total number of crashes at the two camera scheme intersections went from 40 to 132.”
Not only is the claimed safety benefit of red light cameras in serious doubt, but there’s strong evidence that they tend to cause rear-end accidents. Because drivers fear being ticketed if they ignore a red light, they stop early, often surprising vehicles behind and causing a collision. The camera promoters dismiss that as a reasonable trade-off if the overall number of fatal accidents decreases.
Apparently, the promoters believe that property damage and possible injury to completely innocent motorists is OK, if someone else might be spared more serious harm. Here’s a question: Will you be happy about damage to your property or injuries to you or your family members which occur because of the red light camera scheme, if the camera promoters say some other driver was allegedly saved from an accident that didn’t occur?
4. Government wants a stream of revenue, so it has a reason NOT to fix the problem. Local government and red-light camera vendors have an interest in generating revenue. Cameras will do that, but at a continuing cost to the average motorist in terms of traffic safety.
In August, 2013, the City of Melbourne, Florida, revoked a contract for cameras at two intersections after it found it couldn’t make any money from them. There was no indication that the city had made any effort to re-engineer the intersections, or to determine that there was, in fact, a serious traffic safety problem. My own review of city and state records showed high traffic volume at both intersections, but no fatalities at all and an average of only one personal injury accident per year from 2009 through 2012 as a result of red light violations. What was more important, the safety or the money?
Further, the cameras represent a revenue source for out-of-state or foreign camera vendors at the expense of Florida’s motorists. For example, Melbourne’s contract with a company that has an office in Massachusetts, but with headquarters in The Netherlands, was for a total of five cameras, two at one intersection, three at the other. The vendor’s fee was to be $4200 per camera, per month, or a total of $252,000 per year.
Let’s be clear that the problem isn’t occurring at all traffic lights. But fixing the trouble at those few problem intersections isn’t the focus of traffic cameras. The focus is revenue based on emotionalism, a bad combination for a serious matter like traffic safety. You don’t have to follow the money trail with red light cameras, just follow the money superhighway.
The money is so important that one vendor has been involved in a bribery scandal in Chicago, Illinois, and in ten other states, including Florida, according to TheNewspaper.com.