Saying "No" to Red Light Cameras

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Saying "No" to Red Light Cameras

by Brian T. Schwartz, January 17, 2003 (posted)

Part I: Traffic Lights and Safety

You're driving in Boulder near a busy intersection and from out of nowhere you see a bright flash of light. Lightening? Alien flying saucers? After dismissing these possibilities, you realize it's one of those traffic cameras the Boulder Police Department recently installed, and it just created another criminal. Another driver, not you of course, ran a red light. You might think nothing of it. Or perhaps you feel on Orwellian chill down your spine, but figure that it's just a small price to pay for safer streets. I want to make you feel uncomfortable, or perhaps even scared or angry, about traffic cameras, and realize the costs of traffic cameras are huge, monetarily and spiritually, and for a non-existent benefit. I will review three reasons to oppose the use of cameras to enforce traffic laws.

  1. Traffic camera unnecessarily create criminals in an attempt to make roads safer.
  2. Traffic cameras are a gateway a surveillance state.
  3. Traffic cameras erode personal responsibility.
Before I address these arguments, I will review background on the red light running issue. According to the Federal Highway Administration, "over 90 percent of Americans believe that red light running (RLR) is "extremely" or "very" dangerous." According to the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running, between 1992 and 1998, fatal motor crashes at traffic signals increased 18 percent, outpacing the 6 percent rise in all other fatal crashes."

When I inquired with this group about their data sources, a representative referred me to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which issued a press release with similar data. This press release sites the Fatality Analysis Reporting System of the U.S. Department of Transportation as their source. However, Lorenzo Daniels of the U.S. DOT, told me that "we [U.S. DOT] provided IIHS data on fatalities in intersections with a traffic control device but we didn't provide them with information on red light running....We can tell you that there was a traffic safety control device in the intersection and that there were fatalities but we cannot tell you if the individual or individuals ran the red light."

Further, Traffic Safety Facts 2000, published by the US Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, tells a different story. Since 1975, fatal accident rates per 100,000 male licensed drivers have decreased significantly: from more than 60 in the late 1970's to just above 40 since the early 1990's. For female licensed drivers, the accident rate has held constant at around 30 per 100,000 drivers. The graph showing fatal accidents per miles traveled is even more dramatic: from the late 1960's to the late 1990's, the rate decreased by almost two-thirds.

Between 1992 and 1998, this rate also decreased slightly, which throws doubt on the numbers by the Stop Red Light Running Campaign. Further, "failure to obey traffic signs, signals, or officer" was a "related factor" for only 5% of all fatal accidents. Since "failure to keep in proper lane or running off road" is sited for 31% of all fatal accidents, perhaps these people should campaign to prevent these accidents, perhaps by advocating more bumps and reflectors between lanes. Still, red light running does cause accidents, and regardless of how many, we should determine the effectiveness of red light cameras in preventing them.

Traffic Cameras Create Criminals

Boulder has operated photo red light cameras at five intersections since 1998. According to Joe Paulson, a Signal Operations Engineer for the the city of Boulder, they were installed because of a perception of red light running accidents. In September 2001, the City proudly announced the effects of the photo red light program: "Boulder has seen a 36 percent reduction in the number of people running red lights and a 56 percent reduction in red light accidents at photo red light locations."

This statement, based on data available on the City of Boulder's web site, is misleading for several reasons. Both figures are based on incidents, and not incident rates. Hence, if there is less traffic at the camera intersections, for example, if construction diverts it, fewer drivers will run red lights, and fewer accidents will occur. Even if traffic volume remained constant, the data is still inconclusive: the reduction in accident rates from one year to the next is meaningless without knowing the accident rate for an average year and how much these rates fluctuate. Further, other changes could account for the decreased accidents, such as lane designations, light synchronizations, all-red durations, and even publicity about the cameras themselves.

Suppose, for sake of argument, that the red light cameras really do work. Does this mean that photo red light cameras are the best solution? Eric Skrum, Communications Director for the National Motorists Association stated,

Red light violations are a problem created by government agencies, not the typical driver. It has been well proven that sound engineering practices improve compliance with traffic laws and traffic signals while reducing accidents. If large numbers of otherwise law-abiding citizens do not comply with a particular law or regulation, the root cause is NOT the citizens, but rather the law or regulation, or its implementation.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey also opposes photo red light cameras, and is author of "The Red Light Running Crisis: Is it Intentional?. Armey documents a strange coincidence: Before the mid-1980's, when red light cameras reached the market, the Institute for Traffic Engineers (ITE) stated that yellow light times should be increased for intersections with too many red light violations. Since then, the ITE merely suggests lengthening yellow times, along with enforcement, meaning red light cameras. Further, since the availability of red light cameras, the ITE has changed its method of calculating appropriate yellow light times, which has resulted in shorter yellow light durations.

As the National Motorist Association (NMA) summarizes:

[Y]ellow traffic light timing has been cut from an average of five seconds to three seconds in duration and that revenue collected from intersections with these shorter durations have become a mainstay of many local governments...several cities have dropped their red-light camera programs after adding only one second to yellow light durations at intersections because infractions were "virtually eliminated."

The NMA is so confident that engineering solutions such as yellow light timing, traffic signal and intersection design are a better solution that they have issued the following challenge:

Show us any red light ticket camera intersection that still has high numbers of red light violations...and we will guarantee a MINIMUM of a 50 percent reduction in red light violations through the application of engineering solutions. If our recommendations fail to meet our minimum goal of a 50 percent reduction in red light violations, we will pay the community $10,000 to be used on any traffic safety program or project it chooses. But, if we prove the validity of our contentions, the community will employ our engineering based recommendations at other troublesome intersections, and scrap its ticket camera program.
$10,000 may sound like a lot of money, but since its inception, Boulder's photo enforcement program has cost Boulder residents approximately $670K per year and the program's annual revenue from drivers exceeds $450K. For a program of dubious value, some may call this highway robbery.

While the NMA opposes ticket cameras for traffic law enforcement, they have proposed a "Model Red Light Camera Law", which outlines criteria that must be met before a camera can be placed at an intersection. The first two state that the minimum yellow light duration be 4 seconds for interesections with approach speeds of 30 mph or less, with a half-second increase for every 5 mph above 30 mph

If the NMA's findings are true, engineering changes such as yellow light timing may decrease red-light-running accidents in Boulder: According to Joe Paulson, a typical yellow light duration in Boulder for a flat 35 mph zone is 3.6 seconds, and, except for a few minor changes, yellow-light timings have not been revised since the early '90's.

Part II: Big Brother

For sake of argument, suppose Boulder's photo-red light program more effective and cost efficient than any other method. Even if this were the case, traffic cameras are still dangerous: they are a step toward the Big Brother dystopia George Orwell describes in his novel 1984. It is often said that getting a citizenry to accept tyranny is like getting a frog to accept being boiled alive: You can't drop the frog into boiling water, as it will jump out. You have to put the frog in room temperature water, and slowly turn up the heat.

The water is already simmering. The city of Tampa, Florida has installed cameras, not only in crime-ridden areas, but also at the 2002 Superbowl. Boulder High School has installed cameras to prevent vandalism, and next time you're on Pearl Street, look up and wave to the cameras on top of the Courthouse.

Again, police officers and government officials appeal to "safety." Yet, as the ACLU reports, public surveillance cameras have not been effective in England, Australia, and Oakland, CA. Further, the systems have been abused: the ACLU reports cases of blackmail, racial profiling, and voyeurism. Government surveillance cameras can also read license plates, and this has led to abuse.

Further, the infrastructure for higher resolution cameras is already in place. As syndicated columnist Jacob Sullum points out, "[K]nowing that you are being watched by armed government agents tends to put a damper on things. You don't want to offend them or otherwise call attention to yourself." Eventually, he warns, "people may learn to be careful about the books and periodicals they read in public, avoiding titles that might alarm unseen observers. They may also put more thought into how they dress, lest they look like terrorists, gang members, drug users or hookers."

How does Boulder respond to such claims? No worry, as they say it's a myth that "photo safety systems are an impersonal 'big brother' approach to traffic enforcement." After all, "Driving is a licensed privilege and regulated activity that occurs on a public right-of-way. By obtaining a license, motorists agree to abide by certain rules." Again, they dodge the issue, but I'll challenge their "fact" anyway.

Should we consider it a privilege to drive on public roads? If so, what about walking on public streets; should that require a license? After all, it's an "activity that occurs on a public right-of-way", and many towns have such a policy for youth: curfews. What's next, a National Permission to Live, otherwise known is a National ID?

Part III: Personal Responsibility

In the previous section I discussed how traffic cameras pave the road to government surveillance of its citizens, and how corrupt law enforcers use such "security" measures to erode our rights. In this section, I will discuss how traffic cameras erode personal responsibility, the foundation of individual freedom, prosperity, and peace.

In his essay his essay "On Doing the Right Thing", Albert Jay Nock wrote that people should act ethically, not for fear of punishment or a duty to obey, but out of an "unenforced, self-imposed allegiance to moral or social considerations." It's the difference between acting according to an internal or external authority. After all, what kind of society is preferable; one where people refrain from endangering other and respect their rights of others because they fear punishment for not doing so, or as a matter of personal integrity?

Recently, after checking out those cameras on the Courthouse, I walked to the intersection of Pearl and 14th Street, by Illegal Pete's. First I see the red hand telling me to stop, but after looking both ways (left, right, and left again), I cross the street, as does another pedestrian. By crossing "against the hand", we had just broken the law, and, by doing so, might have corrupted a young boy on the other side of Pearl. He was standing there between his parents, each of them holding one of his hands.

By the time we crossed, there were still no cars even approaching the intersection, but they kept waiting for the machine to give them permission to walk. I'm not making this up, and if I were, I'd be poorly plagiarizing a scene from the first chapter of Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, where she illustrates how erosion of personal responsibility and political freedoms feed upon each other.

"Teach Your Children" is a classic folk song by Crosby, Stills, and Nash, a band known for protest songs against authority. Its opening stanza could not be more fitting:

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good-bye
Teach your children well...
Consider the adults waiting to cross the street. What code are they living by and teaching their child? By holding his hands, the parents were telling the child to follow their lead. This might be acceptable for young children, but only if the parents act like responsible adults, who respect their own judgment more than they do a flashing light. The parents could have shown the child how to cross the street safely and responsibly, and done so. Instead, they stood there, as if they too were children, and civil servants to their civil masters.

Let's again consider driving. Would you prefer to share the road with obedient, rule-following drivers, or with responsible drivers? The obedient rule followers will drive simply to reach their destination without breaking any rules. The consequences of their actions to themselves and others are secondary, if important at all. Obedient drivers need never actually look for pedestrians or other cars in an intersection before entering it, or consider road conditions when deciding how fast to drive. Rather, they will blindly follow what the signs say.

In fact, our government is already treating drivers like children. The Federal Highway Administration states

one of our television public service announcements revolves around a law enforcement theme with a powerful message: law enforcement intends to stop red light runners for their own good.
"For our own good." This is the rationale behind all paternalistic laws. Of course, we all consider ourselves responsible, but it's those strangers over there who cannot be trusted to do the right thing. Of course, they're pointing to us saying the same thing. The result is the Nanny State, where people are "sheeple", and don't take responsibility for their own lives and the consequences of their actions.

Do you want to be on the road with such drivers, or be on the same planet with such people? What kind of police officer handcuffs a pot smoker and throws him in prison to await trial? What kind of juror, who thinks the defender is harmless, obeys the judge's warning "not to judge the law" declares him guilty of breaking the law, anyway? What kind of prison guard locks the prison door of the pot-smoker turned convict? How different are these people from the guard at a Nazi concentration camp who is "just following orders"? In what is now known as the Milgrim Experiment, social psychologist Stanley Milgram asked the same question, and concluded that there was little.

Boulder is a city of well-meaning socially conscious people. If there is a problem with red light running, what does it say about our city government when they say that the problem is with us, and not with their traffic engineering? If they can't trust us, should we trust them not to abuse their power and use surveillance systems to their benefit?


Brian T. Schwartz is the Minister of Propaganda for the CU Campus Libertarians. He would like to thank the fine individuals at Save the World for the inspiration and encouragement to write this article.

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