Thursday, November 02, 2006

City council approves red light camera scam

If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is, and that goes double for the system of cameras the City of Austin voted today to install to give tickets to red light runners.

Vendors will pay for the cameras to be installed, then take a percentage of the profits. So do you think those vendors (or the city, which anticipates a big revenue windfall) have any interest in actually reducing red light running? Not a chance - the more red lights are run, the more money they make. In other cities municipalities actually lowered the length of yellow light times in order to increase revenue.

Most studies on the subject not paid for by vendors find that the number of injury accidents stays about the same when red light cameras are installed, or sometimes increase. The state of Virginia banned municipal red light camera use because a statewide study showed they were sending more ambulances to auto accidents, not less, after the cameras were installed. Other states have followed suit.

People don't run red lights on purpose, they tend to do it by accident, and cameras won't help that.

Councilmember Mike Martinez, in particular, came off simultaneously arrogant and ignorant on the subject, declaring criticisms of the camera scheme by the ACLU central Texas chapter "not substantive," but refusing to debate the topic. Not only was he being an asshole, he was flat out wrong: ACLU presented the council with a plethora of legitimate studies and other documentation, while councilmembers (according to results from an ACLU open records request) received all their data from industry lobbyists. City staff hadn't even bothered to contact more neutral sources.

Martinez should be ashamed of himself. IMO he bared his ass and came off as though he didn't care what the facts were - he just wants the extra income. What invertebrate cowardice! If the city needs more money, show some balls and raise taxes - don't try to mulct citizens through the back door.

City Council claims that this is about "safety" are an obvious canard. The Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M says there would be a greater benefit in accident reduction - they estimate 40%, according to testimony at the hearing - simply by increasing yellow light times by one second. Another proven method is to add a visible counter to traffic signals at high-risk intersections that counts down the moments until the light changes - most red light running happens because drivers are guessing when the light will change, and the counter takes out all the guesswork, dramatically reducing accidents.

But the city isn't looking at increasing yellow light times. Why? Because it would decrease camera revenue.

This is nothing but a scam. More later on some of the legal aspects, but for now if you're interested check out past coverage of this issue from Grits for Breakfast when the matter was before the Texas Legislature.

UPDATE: See Statesman coverage and comments from the public.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks, David. Actually, on Houston's cameras they approved them a while back but only started giving tickets a month ago. They've had trouble collecting fines, see:

On the countdown timers, you see them more frequently in the US at pedestrian crosswalks, counting down the seconds (or for stoplights, tenths of seconds) until the light changes. They just have a similar countdown for cars, only it'd be beside the light itself instead of by the walk/don't walk sign.

Mike over at his "Bake Sale of Bile" thinks red light runners are doing it intentionally, running the "orange," he said, but there is no "orange," only drivers making guesses about when the light will change. The timer means they don't have to guess. Best to all,

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Yet, if they KNEW when the light would change, they'd better judge whether they'd make it or not - that's the difference.

The "orange" is code for the driver's uncertainty as to when the light will change. The countdown timer eliminates the uncertainty.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

BTW, Mike, you seem more concerned with punishing bad intentions than preventing accidents - red light runners are "bad guys," etc., you said on your blog. The road to hell is paved with good intentions- what you want with fundamental infrastructure questions like traffic control is good OUTCOMES. For that, you need engineering solutions, not punishment. Best,

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Punishment should be reserved for the outliers, IMO - red light cameras mulct average motorists who just get caught in that in-between moment you describe as "orange."

Even by your definition, the driver doesn't want to take the risk of running an actual red light - so the counter would solve the problem for "orange" runners, by your logic.

Like I said, lengthen yellow light times first, at least - nobody's suggested four-way reds. Install traffic circles at the worst intersections, if you must. Then talk to me about cameras. Best,

Sal Costello said...

Councilmember Kim misinforms the public when she claims Red Light Cameras improve safety.

Studies from cities nationwide prove they have INCREASED accidents:

This is a scam, just like tolling roads we've already paid for and some of the camera dealers are the same special interest toll profiteers! Proponents of these programs place profits before the public interest and our families’ safety

Sal Costello

Unknown said...

You said "People don't run red lights on purpose, they tend to do it by accident, and cameras won't help that." That is the most idiotic statement I've ever heard. You don't run red lights by "accident." People run red lights by trying to sneak through at the end of the light because they are too busy or important to slow down and wait 2 minutes for the next cycle. Second, what the yellow light time is doesn't matter. These systems trigger when the ENTER the intersection on a RED light, not a yellow light. The yellow light time is immaterial. Third, who cares if this is only about revenue. Collecting revenue on the backs of those that intentionally break the law and endanger the safety of others is fine by me.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Mike, you wrote: "orange" means "I know it's going to change from yellow to red, but I know I'm in less danger of a collision than if I ran the middle of a red cycle".

Saying "I know it's going to change" means it hasn't changed yet. You're now altering your arguments.

To Jeff - If that's the most idiotic thing you've ever heard, you need to get out more. And maybe think more. People trying to "sneak through" at the "end" of the yellow are guessing when the light will turn. If they didn't have to guess, FAR fewer would run the light, becasue most people don't want to risk running a red because of safety reasons, as Mike's original comments implied.

Lengthening the yellow would dramatically help the problem at most intersections. Countdown timers at the more dangerous ones would nearly resolve it. Once that's done - install traffic circles where you still have collisions and you'd have solved the problem without mulcting the taxpayers needlessly or setting up massive, city-wide surveillance sytstems. Best,

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Mike, I'm literally quoting YOU back to you, and you altered what you said. I won't debate EVERY position you take, so I picked the first one.

You're the only one here who cares whether drivers intent is bad - I'm not speculating and thinking some aren't doesn't make me naive. By contrast, my concern is whether the changes will alter their behavior in ways that make the roads measurably safer.

Red light cameras increase injury accidents, but you seem to cling to the moralism that somehow the red light runner deserves a ticket. Some do, some don't. But you'll cause more wrecks with the cameras, period (you can argue if they're less severe wrecks, but there are more). So at a minimum it should be a last resort, AFTER lengthening yellows, etc. If the intersection is particularly bad, install a traffic circle and solve it. That won't slow down traffic more than the increased number of wrecks.

The whole system of living of fine income is bad public policy, if it can be avoided. And in this case it certainly can.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Mike, no one's willfully misrepresenting you, but I won't stop quoting you and refuting your quotes if you're commenting on my blog.

There is no "orange." There is red and yellow, and people guessing when it will change. Some do it "on purpose", some by accident. Some go through after the red starts, but many of your comments are also critical of those who rush the yellow. You've said both. Sorry if it offends you when I notice.

In any event, whether they run the light on purpose or not is irrelevant - silly moralizing that has nothing to do with reducing traffic accidents.

I've outlined ways that would actually reduce accidents without mulcting the taxpayers. You'd rather punish people than reduce accidents. I don't understand why, but I don't think it improves public safety. Best,

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Here's exactly what I was responding to, Mike, and I'll quote me two comments ago quoting you:

Mike, you wrote: "orange" means "I know it's going to change from yellow to red, but I know I'm in less danger of a collision than if I ran the middle of a red cycle".

If Orange means you know it's GOING to change, that means it hasn't changed yet. I'm not going to repeat myself anymore on that and if you're going to change your arguments you should at least disavow the older ones.

Also, you say we are taught yellow means stop if it's safe to do so? By who? Who taught you that? The law says you aren't running the light if you enter when it's yellow - that's why people guess when it will turn and try to make it. If the law said what you think we're "taught", God knows by whom, it'd be a different matter. Then, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Mike, I saw this in the comments to an unrelated blog post and thought of your moralizing stance on traffic. It's from Chuang Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher:

"The Empty Boat

"Suppose a boat is crossing a river and another boat, an empty one, is about to collide with it. Even an irritable man would not lose his temper. But suppose there was someone in the second boat. Then the occupant of the first would shout to him to keep clear. And if he did not hear the first time, nor even when called to three times, bad language would inevitably follow. In the first case there was no anger, in the second there was—because in the first case the boat was empty, in the second it was occupied. And so it is with man."

The problem at hand, as with the man in the story, is to keep the boats, or cars, from hitting one another. In neither case does getting angry at a perceived wrongdoing, nor even extracting punishment from the other boater after the fact, achieve the immediate goal of eliminating the collision.

Red light cameras in this instance are analagous to the boater who'd rather allow the collision to occur, then punish the other boater later in court, rather than just avoid the crash in the first place. Just because anger in such cases is human nature doesn't make it justified, nor does it mean acting on it will generate the best public policy.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Mike, your response on the empty boat parable tells me you simply have not understood my arguments at all, so you're right it would be unhelpful to continue.

That said, no one has mispresented your statements, you've just inconsistently expressed your views. If you don't like someone calling you on it, that's your problem. Saying the light is "going" to change implies it's still yellow when the driver makes the decision to enter the intersection. Sorry - I honestly don't understand your complaint, nor why you'd rather punish alleged bad intentions instead of reducing accidents. I think reducing accidents is more important. Best,

Unknown said...

I just received a red light ticket in the mail. I'm pretty upset because I DO NOT purposely run red lights. I remember the evening it happened and this is how it worked: light was green I glance at my gauges (speedometer, temp and gas) I look back up and it's yellow. The cars in front of me aren't breaking, I figure it just changed to yellow. I was going the speed limit and when it turned red and I was 3 ft away from the line that was not enough breaking room to go from 30 to stop so I went through.

What makes me even madder is the next traffic light (very close to the first) was red for my left turn and as I sat there I saw a driver go thru a red light at a very high rate of speed but since there's no camera on that light he'll never get in trouble.

A friend got a red light ticket at a different light up the road. What doesn't make any sense is that light is completely sensor activated, someone has to be sitting there wanting to go accross the intersection but in the handy dandy pictures they sent there were no other vehicles at the intersection.

How are we supposed to trust that these tickets are valid and not just a scam?

I'm thinking of doing a few things... either send in a picture of my check from different angles (as if it's moving away)... or sending in the check with a ton of staples in it (hehe they say not to staple anything)... or I'll just go in to court and argue that it would not have been safe for me to slam on the breaks right at that moment and I'm sorry it won't happen again (I've only had one other ticket and it was 3 years ago, I'm a safe driver damnit!).