Monday, February 29, 2016

Editorial: The problem with automated traffic enforcement

A red light camera cluster in Long Beach, CA
I have a serious hate-hate relationship with the idea of automated traffic enforcement. I hate the fact that safety is abdicated to the all mighty dollar. I hate the fact that despite just about every major independent traffic study demonstrating that automated enforcement actually results in more accidents, municipalities still use automated enforcement because they have adapted their budgets to count upon that stream of revenue. I hate the fact that the very presence of automated enforcement often contributes further to congestion as the presence of signs even hinting at the possibility of cameras makes people drive like their IQs have been cut in half. The truth is that automated enforcement does not work as a traffic calming or driving safety measure. Many municipalities are finally starting to wise up to that fact and some have even started to remove their traffic enforcement cameras when the revenue promised by the companies that install and manage the cameras never actually materializes and additional administrative costs are incurred by people fighting the tickets.

In concept, the idea of automated enforcement sounds like it should be a no-brainer. We have certain laws that are pretty clear cut and should be just as easily enforceable with a video feed as with a live police officer. Things like speed limits and red lights seem like natural choices for this kind of no-frills enforcement. This works in theory so long as the purpose behind the cameras is clear cut for safety. However, over the years, many municipalities, having decided that these cameras could be a an easy ATM to fill gaps in their budgets, made changes to speed limits or yellow light durations in an effort to boost revenue generated by these devices. When the motivation behind the presence of the cameras changed, so did their usefulness in providing safety.

For instance, there are yellow light periods that are deemed ideal for specific speeds to allow sufficient time for drivers to make a safe decision about proceeding through the light versus stopping. Adding the presence of a red-light camera tends to skew the ratio towards stopping. By simply installing the cameras and making no other changes, it changed driver behavior enough to err towards caution. However, this abundance of caution means that it took longer for municipalities to break even on the installation and administration costs and the companies to turn a profit. At this point, an effort begins, usually spurred by the company administering the cameras, to reduce the yellow light durations, allowing more potential violators to be caught and ticketed. In doing that, more chaos is actually created because people, now caught off guard by the shortened yellow, slam on their brakes or accelerate even faster through the intersection in order to avoid that ticket. The end result is that many of those intersections where automated enforcement cameras were set up merely shifted accidents from t-bone collisions to rear-endings compared to when they did not have the cameras and often actually had higher accident rates.

The same issue arises with speed cameras. Once installed, if they are effective in their intended purpose of reducing speeders, then they become a less effective revenue stream. Some municipalities, in an effort to maintain that revenue stream, will reset speed limits to be lower than ideal for traffic flow in an effort to maintain that revenue stream.

Of course, the biggest issue with traffic enforcement cameras is that they cannot enforce a huge variety of equally important traffic laws. Things like distracted driving, unsafe interactions with cyclists and pedestrians, or even reckless driving almost always require the presence of an officer to enforce and those are often bigger safety issues than speeders and far more frequent than red light runners. Most police forces abhor having to dedicate an officer to traffic patrols, but they really should if safety is the top concern.

That is not to say that there is never a place for automated enforcement. The issue is that the approach must put the ultimate goal of safety first and the revenue generated should be treated only as a bonus. Currently, traffic and parking enforcement revenue, which will decline as rules are enforced and followed, is often treated as a way to cover increasing gaps in municipal budgets. Doing so may make auditors happy, but the reality is that these measures, if effective, are supposed to decrease over time unless municipalities find ways to keep moving the goal posts, which is what many have done. When speed enforcement revenue falls, municipalities that installed fixed speed enforcement cameras often lower the speed limits to restore revenue. Chicago notoriously reduced yellow light timing to increase revenue from its red light cameras. Automated enforcement becomes counterproductive if the end goal is not safety.

Instead of shady deals with automated traffic enforcement companies, municipal leaders should focus on having police departments send officers out into known problem areas to enforce a broader variety of traffic laws, including distracted driving and pedestrian safety violations. If I can walk around my neighborhood and in the space of an hour spot an average of a dozen ticketable offenses nearly every day of the week, then there is no reason a patrol officer also walking the neighborhood could not do the same. Plus, community policing in this manner, where officers actually walk around and talk to residents and business owners, helps to build better relations between the police and the community and helps reinforce that safety and security are top priorities. If done right, the revenue might even be just as strong if not better than using the automated enforcement cameras alone.