Red Light Cameras Cause Accidents

Many in support of cameras refer to studies showing that cameras offer a net reduction in accidents and a net increase in safety while at the same time bringing in income for the city.  Mayor Pike has been pretty vocal  on the subject and made these comments in the Herald Blogs referring to an Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) report:

the full report conclusions, which state that rear-end collisions increase by 10%, t-bones decrease by 24%, and the injury/death rates drop substantially due to the increased trauma associated with t-bones compared to rear-end crashes.

The study showed a decrease of 24.6% in T-bone crashes, an increase of 14.9% in rear end collisions, for a net decrease of 9.9% in overall crash numbers.

I find it kind of a pointless endeavor to dispute the numbers those in support of red light cameras derive from this study, however I couldn’t be more opposed to these cameras if they were guns, so I feel its at least worth pointing out an alternate interpretation of the study results.   This table is from the same the same report and it sheds a little more light on the fact that the report is based on a very small data set of only 7 samples and the data varies wildly so our statistical confidence in its accuracy is very low.

Table 2. Results for individual jurisdictions for total accidents.
Jurisdiction number*
(in random order)
Percent change in right-angle crashes
(standard error)
Percent change in rear end crashes
(standard error)
1 – 40.0 (5.4)
21.3 (17.1)
0.8 (9.0)
8.5 (9.8)
– 14.3 (12.5)
15.1 (14.1)
– 24.7 (8.7)
19.7 (11.7)
– 34.3 (7.6)
38.1 (14.5)
– 26.1 (4.7)
12.7 (3.4)
– 24.4 (11.2)
7.0 (18.5)

Given the standard error, redlight cameras net effect on right angle crashes could vary between a 45.4% decrease to a 9.8% increase if this study is accurate.  While at the same time we could guess that the net effect on rear end crashes could vary anywhere from a  16.1% to a 52.6% increase.   With one of the seven sample areas reporting an increase in both types of accidents after red light cameras were installed it seems quite plausible that with six locations going in in Bellingham we might see a net increase in accidents at one of the areas.   Anyone hear Bellingham’s Mayor mention that?   The supporters of these systems seem all to ready to assume that people are going to be happy with a “net” improvement in safety.   I think that is a bad assumption.

How would we all  feel about new H1N1 flu vaccine that studies show is  9.9% safer than the old one?  But what if that 9.9% safer was a “net” number  that came from a 24.6% average decrease in  your risk of contracting H1N1, but a 14.9% greater risk of contracting another deadly type of flu?    Still interested in that 9.9%?  What about if the drug companies offered the new vaccine for free by charging those who contract the flu $250?  What about if they gave half of it to the City of Bellingham?     If none of that makes sense to you then you understand one of my arguments against red light cameras.
“Net”  is a sum of the good and bad elements in a situation and in the case of red light cameras, the potential good decrease in right angle T-bone accidents and the money that the City of Bellingham brings in won’t mean squat to those who will be harmed in the bad new crop of rear end accidents.   And it doubly won’t mean squat because there is another more “net” safe solution that will decrease both T-Bone and rear end collisions as well as lower speed through intersections and increase safety in school zones.  That more “net” safe solution however cost money rather than makes money and I can only presume that is why the City of Bellingham is choosing the money making alternative.
Tragically the more safe solution is right in front of our eyes, yet no one seems to see it because everyone is looking at dollar signs, Tim Eyman, and privacy issues.  Warning signs and signals are the safe  answer and they are part of the red light system being offered.  The cameras merely record an infraction, while the signs and signals do the real safety work by warning drivers of a special situation that will need extra care and attention.   As I’ve pointed out in a previous post, according to the same FHWA who produced the above mentioned report, signs and other engineering means without cameras make up the top 10 or 15 methods of creating more safe situations at intersections and school zones.

Even in the system being adopted by the City of Bellingham, signs and warning signals are the most visible part of the system.  I can only guess at how ineffective the camera would be at improving safety if they were simply perched on a pole with no types of signage or lights?  Here’s how I think it looks if you break out the camera independent from the signs.

Signs/Warning Lights Traffic Camera
Make all drivers aware that special care is needed at intersection or crossing· All types of accidents at or near intersections are reduced. 

Reduce red light running

Increase safety at school zones

Initial investment in signs can be costly

Does not violate anyone’s privacy

Are the top recommended way to increase safety in and near intersections

Tickets go on driving record and repeat offenders may lose license.

Have widespread public support

Provide evidence for ticket which have no more effect than a parking ticket

Probably will reduce T-bone accidents

Will definitely increase rear end accidents

Individual privacy is reduced

Provides income stream for City

Not on top 10 list of ways to increase intersection and school zone safety.

Have very limited public support

Offenders caught on camera are not at risk of losing licenses.


Breaking it down, red light cameras provide an income stream yet cause accidents, while warning signs and signals simply make intersections and school zones safer for everyone.  Warning signs are the safety solution that should be pursued by the City of Bellingham yet I don’t see that happening.  I was a bit shocked to hear the Bellingham police chief, during a Bellingham City Council meeting, say that there are still two school zones in his town that don’t even have flashing lights.

We’ve seen Bellingham push a 2 cent tax for bus service, a 2 cent tax for transportation district, and for businesses a  2 cent tax for beautifying the downtown area, yet no one I’ve heard has been pushing a 2 cent tax to improve signs and warnings at dangerous school zones and intersections.    I think the Mayor and City of Bellingham have had there judgment clouded with dollar signs from these red light cameras.

Think back to that flu shot analogy, would you rather get a free shot with dangerous side effects or get a much safer vaccine at a reasonable price?   I would encourage the City of Bellingham to just drop the whole red light/traffic idea which would make the initiative election irrelevant and save everyone both time and money.

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