Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Red Light Cameras

Perhaps you've been following the debate over the City of Los Angeles' abrupt move to consider eliminating its red light photo enforcement program in the LA Times or Streetsblog. For reasons I'll discuss in a moment, I believe this is dangerous and shortsighted on the part of the City, and I hope you'll join me in speaking out in support of red light cameras ASAP (the City Council will take this issue up in the next few days).

The Traffic Safety Coalition has already put together a petition for you to sign in support of the cameras, conveniently saving me the effort of having to create one myself. Please take a moment to sign here--I promise it won't take more than a minute, and it will help us send the right message to the City Council before it's too late. Do it now, I'll wait.

Finished? Okay, let's talk a little more about the issue of red light cameras in LA. As you're surely aware, red light cameras (aka RLCs) spark some serious, and often misinformed, vitriol. Setting aside the more ludicrous arguments against the cameras (sorry, nothing in the US constitution protects your "right" to run a red light), there are legitimate questions regarding their effectiveness. Here are a few of the latest studies on the subject:
Each shows that there are indeed reductions in crashes at intersections where RLCs are installed, though the studies acknowledge that in some cases the total reduction is diminished due to increases in particular types of collisions.

I find this focus on crash reduction misleading. Our goal when installing RLCs should not be to reduce crashes, it should be to reduce deaths, injuries, and property damage. To do this we need to consider type and severity of the crash, not just raw numbers.

The first study listed above does a nice job of this, using information on severity of crashes to quantify the economic impact of installing RLCs. It showed that for all intersections evaluated, the installation of cameras resulted in about a nine percent total reduction in costs from crashes. More importantly for us ped folk, the same study showed that costs from crashes where people were killed or injured were reduced by nearly 14 percent  with the installation of RLCs.

Unfortunately, the City of LA didn't perform this type of analysis when it evaluated the effectiveness of its own RLC program. While the City's data does show a 62 percent reduction in the number of red-light collisions at RLC intersections, there is no quantification of the economic benefit of this reduction. Because of this the City's report makes the true, but misleading, statement that the RLC program does not pay for itself. Maybe the City isn't making money off the RLC program, but that does not mean the program doesn't provide an overall economic benefit to Angelenos when the external costs of crashes are taken into account.

One other little tidbit from the City's analysis: while the cost of continuing the RLC program is between $4 and $5 million per year, it would cost the City over $29 million to provide the same enforcement at the 32 RLC intersections. When you look at it that way, we're getting a pretty good deal.

None of this is to say that the fiscal question isn't legitimate. I agree that the City should take a hard look at any program that is losing money. However, I believe that the solution to this problem isn't eliminating red light cameras altogether. Instead, LA should work harder to identify steps it can take (like lobbying the state government to make the courts enforce the payment of tickets issued by the cameras) to make the RLC program both a financial and public safety success.


  1. The Traffic Safety Coalition is, as it says on its site, "supported by the red light camera industry." In other words, it is a front organization for Redflex. You don't live in LA and I respectfully suggest that you not assist the camera companies in their political endeavors here. You are putting a professional lobbyist out of work!

  2. The fact is that lengthening the yellow light and putting in an all-red phase along with other engineering countermeasures will reduce violations and hence accidents much more than the cameras ever will. Also, accidents actually increased 53% at red-light camera intersections from 2008 to 2009 according to the LAPD's own statistics. The other thing you're not considering is the opportunity cost of not doing other things that would actually improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists. With money spent on this program, the city could install 400 flashing crosswalk systems per year. And what about the lost opportunity for police officers to have an impact on safety because they're assigned to desk duty all day giving tickets for violations that could have been prevented simply by increasing the yellow light time. Furthermore, there are numerous studies that show that the cameras are not effective. http://www.motorists.org/red-light-cameras/studies

  3. @ Henry--point taken, and in the future I will try to clarify the background of any organizations I link to. But:
    1. Do note that the coalition itself is made up of a much more diverse group, including several pedestrian and bike advocacy organizations
    2. My personal position in support of red light cameras is based on my own research into the issue, which has convinced me that these cameras are a good idea from a pedestrian safety perspective
    3. I actually do live in LA. Woodland hills is within the city limits, though admittedly in the far reaches...

  4. @ Anonymous - I agree that adding an all-red interval and increasing yellow time can improve intersection safety, but when it comes to pedestrian safety specifically (particularly when we're talking about right turns on red), I'm not sure that solves the problem.

    I'm not sure where you're getting the 53% increase in crashes? Per the City's report on the RLC program "During the aforementioned period, these intersections [those with RLCs] have experienced a 62 percent decrease in red light related traffic collisions, with no significant increase in rearend collisions."

    I reviewed some of the studies you linked to. Most(but not all) came to the conclusion that while RLCs may increase some types of collisions, when it comes to injury collisions RLCs decrease costs.

    You make an excellent point about opportunity cost. If the decision is simply between RLCs or no RLCs (as it is in this case), I believe RLCs are the better choice. But it would be great if these types of decisions could be based on a robust cost-benefit analysis of ALL options to improve ped safety, allowing leaders to choose the most effective program of improvements.

  5. In addition to the Red Light Camera controversy, there is also the pending attempt to reform the notorious '85th Percentile Law' in California, which essentially allows speeding drivers to effectively raise the legal posted speed limit on arterial streets.

    I hope that all of my State and City representatives will do everything they can to get California Assemblyman Mike Gatto's AB 529, to push back against the 85th Percentile Law and allow California cities to reduce below instead of raise speed limits above the 85th percentile observed speed, and the corresponding Senate bill passed and signed by Governor Brown.

    I don't own or drive a car, but I live surrounded by cars, and their danger and noise, on Riverside Drive in Sherman Oaks, which raised its 35 mph speed limit to 40 mph last year. I am tired of living with the danger of fast cars that endanger us almost every time my partner and I walk on L.A. streets, with more than one near-miss in recent months from cars that approach, and turn right and left, through the intersections we walk through at way too high a speed.

    I also am thoroughly sick of the noise pollution from the many pickup trucks, SUVs, sports cars, and other vehicles outfitted with exhaust resonators for recreational noise-generation -- an effect that is only louder when the vehicles fitted with these should-be-illegal devices are driven faster.

    As an environmentalist, I note too that more moderate-speed driving with gentler acceleration reduces emissions of CO2 and other pollutants, an official objective of the California State Government, and that higher-speed driving has the opposite effect.

    The L.A. Streetsblog has an excellent article about this at http://la.streetsblog.org/2011/06/06/newest-attempt-to-give-cities-power-over-speed-limits-gains-ground-in-sacramento/#more-63301

    Also, a proposal:
    The westbound side of the westernmost half-mile of Riverside Drive, between Van Nuys Boulevard and Hazeltine Avenue, should become an experimental slower-speed zone of not more than 35 mph, and optimally of 30 mph. The cars and trucks that race westward past my home on this stretch of Riverside Drive represent an enormous continuous waste of gas and unnecessary extra emissions of CO2 (and noise in the case of resonator-equipped vehicles) due to the fact that virtually all of these vehicles will need to stop for the long red light they will encounter at the terminus of Riverside Drive at Van Nuys Boulevard or the backed-up traffic waiting for that red light to turn, briefly, green.

    Another good reason to do this in the case of Riverside Drive is the blind curve that is located just east of the T-intersection that terminates Riverside Drive and is encountered by these westbound vehicles. A neighbor of mine who lives near that blind curve has told me that he has witnessed a number of rear-end collisions and near-collisions at this location over the years.

    This westernmost half-mile segment of Riverside Drive, and similar stretches of arterial roadway in Los Angeles and California, should therefore become the sites of what might be referred to as ARTERIAL SLOW-DOWN ZONES, to slow vehicles down from the higher speed of these thoroughfares' main portions, with appropriate signage and possibly blinking lights and other roadside measures, for safety and fuel-efficiency/pollution-reduction reasons.

    Gregory Wright in Sherman Oaks, California