By Aaron Ladage
The use of red-light cameras may be cutting down on light runners - and, not so coincidentally, increasing revenue for cities. But new analysis in Washington, DC, shows that the devices don't lower accident rates - they actually raise them.
According to the Washington Post, the city has caught more than a half a million red-light violators and has received more than $32 million in traffic fines from the cameras in the past six years. However, accident rates these intersections, the Post found, had increased, often at the same level or worse than at intersections without cameras.
In 1998, the total number of accidents at camera-covered intersections was 365. Last year, that number climbed to 755, according to the Post.
"The data are very unclear," Dick Raub, a traffic consultant at Northwestern University's Center for Public Safety, told the Post. "They are not performing any better than intersections without cameras."
The Metropolitan Police Department installed nine new red-light cameras and three speed enforcement cameras earlier this summer, bringing the total number of surveillance cameras in the DC area to 48.
Not enough yellow in the Golden State
Drivers in Union City, CA, aren't just seeing red - they're seeing it a few seconds sooner than they should.
According to news Web site insidebayarea.com, every red-light ticket issued in the city - which could amount to as many as 3,000 - has been revoked, after it was discovered by city officials that the timing of the yellow lights at five camera-monitored intersections had been shortened more than a second below than the state-required length.
According to the California Department of Transportation, an intersection with a speed limit of 45 mph should have a yellow light time of at least 4.3 seconds. In Union City, however, the yellow-light time was incorrectly set at 3 seconds.
About 100 of the 3,000 ticketed people had either already paid the $136 dollar ticket, according to insidebayarea.com. All of those people will be refunded, and the violations eliminated for the others.
Flub in Florida
As red light cameras face scrutiny across the country, one city in Florida is using the technology as a warning system, rather than a revenue source.
The Orlando Police Department announced in early August that it would install red light cameras at intersections throughout the city to catch light runners in the act, despite a Florida law that prevents the cameras' photos or video being the sole evidence for a traffic ticket, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
Violators won't receive a ticket - they'll just get a warning letting them know they were caught, as encouragement not to do it again.
So far, the camera is being used as part of a pilot program, and will be moved daily to prevent drivers from knowing its location.
"You can either have a two-ton dump truck invade your privacy, or a camera," Russ Colthorpe, a representative for the camera manufacturer, told WFTV-TV. "Which would you prefer?"
In Minneapolis, a city where 16 red light cameras were installed at 12 intersections as a pilot program, only about 40 percent of drivers caught by the cameras were actually issued tickets.
According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, about 11,500 drivers were photographed between July 7 - a month after the cameras were installed and the first day tickets began being issued - and Aug. 6. But there were technical problems with the cameras such as blocked views from tree branches and larger vehicles.
The cameras also erroneously photographed drivers who were making legal right turns on red. Of the 11,500 drivers caught on camera, only about 4,500 drivers were issued tickets.
Red-light cameras? No in MO
Meanwhile, in Missouri, state Attorney General Jay Nixon is questioning whether the photographs provide enough proof to hand out tickets to motorists.
"I think it's pretty clear these pictures can't be the sole or only evidence to cite drivers for violating state traffic laws," Nixon told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I have deep concern whether taking someone's picture rolling through a stop light is adequate evidence in and of itself to uphold a state traffic law."
Several towns in Missouri have already installed the cameras, and more are expected in the near future. Officials in the towns say the cameras would help enforce local ordinances, and would be out of the jurisdiction of statewide laws, according to the Post-Dispatch.
Oops in Ohio
In Dayton, OH, a plethora of tickets - about 33,300 - have been issued since red-light cameras were installed throughout the city. The only problem? Only about 20,000 of the $85 citations have been paid, according to WHIO-TV.
That means revenue from the cameras, which should be about $2.8 million, is closer to $1.7 million - more than a million dollars short. Carol Johnson, a spokesperson for the Dayton Police Department, said the violations are civil offenses, and police are hesitant to spend department resources on collecting the money.
Most ironic, however, is that Redflex, the manufacturer of the cameras and the company with which Dayton splits profits, is based in Australia, a country already troubled by a multitude of enforcement camera problems.
A blunder down under
Traffic cameras aren't just causing problems domestically. A snafu in Australia's network of speed cameras has spurred more doubt about the use of automated traffic enforcement systems in the country.
According to the Melbourne Herald Sun, hundreds of drivers traveling on the Hume Highway at Somerset on July 21 were issued tickets for exceeding 80 km/hr, roughly 50 mph.
The problem? The speed limit on the road is 90 km/hr - approximately 55 mph.
Apparently, the technician responsible for calibrating the cameras set the speed at 10 km/hr too slow. Victoria police are expected to send withdrawal notices to all of the falsely ticketed drivers, the Herald Sun reported.
This incident is the latest of a series of problems in Australia that have raised questions about the security, effectiveness and validity of traffic-monitoring cameras.
On Aug. 9, a judge in Sydney, Australia, threw out a speeding case after the Australia Roads and Traffic Authority admitted they could not prove that pictures taken by an enforcement camera in the case had not been altered, Australia's Daily Telegraph reported.
The case centered on the security of a mathematical algorithm that encrypted every picture taken by the cameras. The RTA was unable to find an expert who could prove the encryption was tamper-proof.
The ruling could set a precedent for many others who have received tickets in connection with the speed cameras, which have been in operation for more than 15 years and generated more than $104 million in fines last year alone, according to the Sun Herald.
On the same day, the RTA also admitted that cameras in the Sydney Harbour Tunnel - which were installed to monitor toll evaders - had been turned off for three years. No tickets were given via the cameras during the time they were off, the Daily Telegraph reported.
During the same week, the Herald Sun uncovered a 50-page manual from the RTA that details other major flaws in the camera system. The paper would not reveal some of the bigger gaps due to safety concerns, but did point out other smaller problems, such as camera distortion from metal signs, fences, wall and roadside postal boxes.