Sunday, March 28, 2010

BUS STORY # 177 (Stop Making Sense)

Red Light Camera 2, originally uploaded by busboy4.

Three years ago almost to the day, I posted an interesting conversation with a co-rider about whether the red light cameras were intended to reduce driving accidents, injuries and death, or to generate revenue for the city. 1.

Red light cameras are back in the news here in New Mexico. Last week, the state Transportation Commission gave the Department of Transportation the power to ban red light cameras on state roads, highways, and interstates. 2

Governor Bill Richardson (legendarily lead-footed) strongly supports the move. 3

The rationale from the commission chairman, Johnny Cope, is two-fold. One reason is that “the true safety impact of the use of these cameras is still murky at best.” The other is that “more and more New Mexico cities seem to be putting driver-generated revenues ahead of sound traffic management techniques . . . ” 4

If Mr. Cope has been googling red light cameras and looking at the welter of conflicting claims, I can appreciate his being murky about the safety impact.

Websites and blogs generally fall into a partisan category; they’re either for or against. Each accuses the other of statistical sleight-of-hand or of using studies already skewed to support their bias.

News stories report the results of studies from both sides, but, characteristic of most of today’s journalism, there is precious little investigative reporting into either position.

Here is what the city website has to say about red light cameras in Albuquerque:
The Albuquerque Fire Department reports a 23% decrease in Level 1 trauma calls at red-light camera enforced intersections. The great news, with redlight violations being down by as much as 50-70% at the oldest red-light camera intersections; lives, money and time are being saved by this successful traffic initiative. 5
If you’re of a partisan mode, your default position on this data is either that the fire department’s data is trustworthy (pro) or the city has manipulated the data so it can keep generating revenue from the red light cameras (anti).

Which brings me to Mr. Cope’s other concern: “ . . . New Mexico cities seem to be putting driver-generated revenues ahead of sound traffic management techniques . . .”

He doesn’t explain how the cities are doing this, but my co-rider, Dan, thought he had the answer three years ago:
Dan went for the coup de grâce. The group took a field trip to several of the intersections and timed the duration of the yellow light. Sure enough, they found some interesting discrepancies. “People learn how much yellow light time they have at a frequently-used intersection, then use that learned response at other intersections where the timing is different. When that time is shorter, the city makes a hundred bucks. Or more.” 1
Going back to Google, it seems that every blog, story or comment about why red light cameras should be banned includes the allegation that municipalities are intentionally manipulating the timing of the yellow light to increase the probability of a red light violation for the sole purpose of generating revenue.

Indeed, I found a substantiated story of such tactics in Washington, D.C. back in 2003. The American Automobile Association’s weighing in is particularly compelling.

How widespread is the practice? It’s hard to tell. But the anti red light camera folks believe it’s the rule and not the exception.

Sadly, it wouldn’t surprise anyone, anywhere, to learn one’s local officials have been abusing the citizenry in this manner. Given the widespread skepticism that yellow light timing is both fair and standardized, I think any municipality using red light cameras needs to publicly address the question if it is to have credibility about the purpose of the program. I don't believe Albuquerque has done that.

The impact of the state decision on Albuquerque will be the loss of four red light cameras on Coors Boulevard and the red light camera at the Paseo del Norte and Jefferson intersection. 4

However, one of the first things our new mayor, Richard Barry, did after taking office was to request a review of the city’s red light program. That covers a great many more intersections and roadways than are affected by the state decision. Right now, the mayor and the city council are waiting for the results of an independent investigation of the efficacy of the program being conducted by researchers at UNM. The mayor has been reported as saying “much of his decision” will be based on the conclusions of the study. 6

Rumor has it he’s not a fan of the program. On the other hand, his administration is facing a multi-million dollar deficit in the wake of the economic collapse, and a “reckless driving tax” might look like a pretty good source of badly needed revenue right now.

(There is also this: if he were to agree with the governor, New Mexico would make national headlines for achieving a bipartisan agreement on something in the known universe. Of course, it’s hard to tell if that would serve as an incentive or a deterrent.)

So what does this have to do with riding the bus?

Whether red light cameras or their absence make intersections more dangerous, one thing every driver, bus rider, cyclist and pedestrian in this city knows for sure: speeding through intersections and running red lights is moving toward cultural acceptance. Intersections are dangerous places because of the way people drive.

ABQ RIDE has been promoting a “top ten” reasons for taking the bus. Here’s number 11: leaving the car in the garage and taking the bus increases your odds of getting where you're going alive and intact.

Of course, buses share the same risk at intersections that cars do. We’ve already lost a Rapid Ride to a red light runner back in October. (There were no red light cameras at the intersection.)

After watching how the passengers were bounced around on that bus, we riders should probably start right now to petition for seat belts.

Helmets optional.


Blogger Busboy said...

More developments from the Albuquerque Journal this morning:

5:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I think some of that data gets cherry picked. You see people talking about studies that show there's an increase in rear end accidents. But they don't tell you the same studies show a decrease in T-bonings and fatalities. Maybe that is how the data gets skewed?

11:14 AM  
Blogger Busboy said...

Anonymous, I haven’t looked at anything more than other people’s reporting of the results of various studies. However, what you suggest is certainly plausible. I would lump that under the “statistical sleight-of-hand” category myself. Regardless, it seems a pretty universal human behavior to tell only that part of the story which is to one’s advantage.

8:54 PM  

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