The controversy over red light cameras, once relegated to websites like TTAC, thenewspaper.com, motorists.org and highwayrobbery.net, is hitting the mainstream media thanks to a new study by the IIHS [PDF here]. The study used the following methodology:
Telephone surveys were conducted with 3,111 drivers in 14 large cities (population greater than 200,000) with long-standing red light camera programs and 300 drivers in Houston, using random samples of landline and cellphone numbers. For analyses combining responses from the 14 cities, cases were weighted to reflect each city’s share of the total population for the 14 cities.
And what did they find?
Among drivers in the 14 cities with red light camera programs, two-thirds favor the use of cameras for red light enforcement, and 42 percent strongly favor it. The chief reasons for opposing cameras were the perceptions that cameras make mistakes and that the motivation for installing them is revenue, not safety. Forty-one percent of drivers favor using cameras to enforce right-turn-on-red violations. Nearly 9 in 10 drivers were aware of the camera enforcement programs in their cities, and 59 percent of these drivers believe the cameras have made intersections safer. Almost half know someone who received a red light camera citation and 17 percent had received at least one ticket themselves. When compared with drivers in the 14 cities with camera programs, the percentage of drivers in Houston who strongly favored enforcement was about the same (45 percent), but strong opposition was higher in Houston than in the other cities (28 percent versus 18 percent).
Sounds like those red light cameras are pretty great after all, doesn’t it? That’s certainly the IIHS’s takeaway…
The IIHS concludes:
Most drivers in cities with long-standing red light camera programs support cameras and recognize their safety benefits, but communities could do a better job of educating the public about the dangers of right-turn-on-red violations and the need for enforcement. Given that camera opponents frequently said cameras make mistakes, it appears communities also could do a better job of explaining the safeguards that ensure citations are issued only to drivers who clearly run red lights.
But that’s a fairly one-sided interpretation of the data, as you might expect from a body that derives its funding from the insurance industry, which in turn has a vested interest in anything that might reduce insurance payouts, regardless of other drawbacks or context. What do I mean by that? Let’s go line-by-line through the IIHS’s conclusions:
Most drivers in cities with long-standing red light camera programs support cameras and recognize their safety benefits
First of all, the data underlying this conclusion is skewed by only including respondents in cities with “long-running red light camera systems.” The only exception is one city that had red light cameras but voted them out: Houston. And despite finding stronger opposition there than in other cities with red light cameras, the IIHS is forced to concede another problematic finding: “In Houston, 53 percent of voters cast ballots against the cameras in November 2010. In the current study, however, 57 percent of the drivers interviewed said they favor camera enforcement, and 45 strongly favor cameras”).
So where are the respondents from cities that had cameras but voted them out? Where in this report can we hear the voices of the citizens of Anaheim? Or Cincinnati? Or San Bernadino? Or how about Baytown, Texas, where the fraudulent tendencies of the red light camera companies couldn’t have been more obvious? Sadly, the list goes on. The IIHS has made its point about “cities with long-standing red light camera programs,” but it’s not at all clear that this data reflects wider American sentiment.
Meanwhile, even among this selective data set, there are issues. When asked if drivers running red lights is a problem in the city, the most common answer, with 38%, was “not a problem.” The next-most popular choice, with 31.8%: “somewhat of a problem.” Furthermore, nearly 93% of respondents said they had not run a red light in the last 30 days, further indicating that the problem is rare and limited to a small percentage of the population. A more fair presentation of the data would simply state that drivers see red-light running as having high risk potential, but that they don’t see it as a common, or everyday problem. This doubtless helps fuel a major complaint about red light cameras, namely that they exist primarily for revenue generation rather than safety.
Given that camera opponents frequently said cameras make mistakes, it appears communities also could do a better job of explaining the safeguards that ensure citations are issued only to drivers who clearly run red lights.
For one thing, the fallibility of cameras was not overwhelmingly chosen as a reason for opposition. At 26.4%, it was the number one reason for opposing, but “focus is on money, not safety” was an extremely close second, at 26.1%. If anything, the need for education is not limited to “explaining safeguards,” but rather explaining the financial incentives that local governments and photo enforcement firms have to rack up as many tickets, accurate or not, as possible. After all, if 4.4 percent are saying “camera programs cost too much money,” clearly there’s a disconnect between how people view red light cameras and the reality (as red light cameras are almost always revenue positive for local governments, unless massive errors or fraud force them to return fines).
but communities could do a better job of educating the public about the dangers of right-turn-on-red violations and the need for enforcement… it appears communities also could do a better job of explaining the safeguards that ensure citations are issued only to drivers who clearly run red lights.
Too bad the IIHS hadn’t sounded the alarm on the need for pro-red light camera “education” a few months ago… Bill Kroske might still have a job. In all seriousness, the 90%+ awareness level among respondents seems to indicate that folks do know that the cameras exist… what the IIHS seems to be suggesting is that people should be indoctrinated to believe that more red lights are fundamentally good, and that these beneficent cameras never screw up. Both of these points of “education” are aimed more at propagating photo enforcement industry talking points than furthering the public good.