Many of us have told been over the years to avoid talking about either politics or religion in polite social settings, lest we touch off verbal fireworks.
Maybe we should consider adding a third subject to the list of off-limit topics: red light cameras.
People seem to be divided into one of two camps:
• Red light cameras are good because they reduce traffic accidents and save lives.
• Red light cameras are bad because they are a horrible infringement on personal privacy – a cheap way for law enforcement agencies to fill the city or county treasury by nabbing unsuspecting motorists who get a citation simply because they turned right at an intersection after the traffic light was red.
While the debate rages on – even in the halls of the 2011 Legislature – a new report out of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety adds fuel to the fire. The study concludes that the cameras have reduced the rate of fatal crashes by 24 percent in 14 large cities that introduced red light cameras between 1996 and 2004.
“Red light cameras are working,” said institute president Adrian Lund. “There are hundreds of people who are alive because some communities had the courage to use this method of enforcement.”
That statement is sure to draw a strong response from camera critics, who point to studies of their own that show that cameras increase the number of rear-end collisions because some motorists stop abruptly when they realize they might get a citation for running a red light at a camera-controlled intersection.
We believe that red light camera policies should be set by local elected officials. The Lacey City Council, for example, has elected to install cameras at one intersection and has seen a sharp reduction in the number of motorists running red lights eastbound and westbound on Pacific Avenue at Sleater Kinney Road.
Elected officials in Olympia, Tumwater and Thurston County have opted not to use cameras at this time.
That’s fine, too. What’s important is that local citizens decide what’s best for their own community and not have an unreasonable dictate from the state, as some would suggest.
The new study out of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety should spark additional conversations in communities across Washington state. The findings after studying circumstances in 62 cities show that the mere presence of cameras forces motorists to stop for red lights. The cameras have a side benefit or “halo effect,” too. When motorists fear cameras at other intersections they are more inclined to stop running red lights. In cities with the cameras, the study also noted drops in all fatal crashes at intersections with traffic signals, not just those caused by running red lights.
Not surprising, it’s not the offending driver that usually dies in the side-collision accidents that occur when a motorist runs a red light.
The institute found that in 2009, 676 people were killed in the U.S. in red light crashes and another 113,000 were injured. In those accidents, 64 percent of those who died were drivers or passengers in other vehicles, pedestrians or cyclists.
Some people, like habitual initiative sponsor Tim Eyman, want to make it more difficult for communities to install cameras. Others, like Rep. Connie Ladenburg, D-Tacoma, are taking a more moderate approach in the Legislature seeking to standardize regulations for cameras. Her legislation is House Bill 1279.
That’s a legitimate approach because it creates consistency and gives cities and counties that want to use cameras to reduce fatalities and accidents the authority to erect and use them in a standard fashion.
The institute claims in its survey that 159 lives were saved in those 14 large cities over a five-year period because of the presence of red light cameras. Surveyors say 815 lives could have been spared over the same time period if all large cities had cameras.
We’ve known for some time that cameras reduce crashes. Now the definitive findings of the highway institute show clearly that cameras save lives when they are used to make roads safer.
The key is proper oversight so camera systems are not abused to become cash cows instead of life savers.
That’s why local control and citizen oversight are key.