By on February 3, 2009

Houston Mayor Bill White selected Urban Politics Professor Robert Stein of Rice University to create a report on the engineering safety performance of the city’s first fifty automated ticketing machines. (Professor Stein’s wife, Marty, is employed by the city of Houston as a top aide to the mayor.) In a November 2007 email, White emphasized his personal interest in the subject at the beginning of the project. “Let’s just make sure that we study things that really matter for decision-making,” Mayor White wrote to Professor Stein. “Our funds for public policy research are scarce. . . . I am not suggesting that somebody alter one’s conclusions and I am not trying to influence the conclusions. What I am trying to do is give some helpful advice from a decision-maker concerning how to avoid analytical overkill.” The point was not lost on Stein whose employer received $50k for the red light camera study and who depended (depends?) on the city for funding of several other projects.

By the beginning of 2008, Stein worried that the data he compiled were not favorable to the city. He let officials know that this should be expected.

“Recall our own findings match what is reported in [this Tampa Tribune] article and in the public health study cited in the article,” Stein wrote in a March 14 email to Houston Police Sergeant Michael Muench. “Tim and I have reviewed ten years’ worth of studies on red light camera programs and the tentative evidence that those studies using the weakest designs are most likely to report a reduction in side impact collisions after the installation of red light cameras. More rigorous and appropriate research designs (like the one we use for the Houston program) fail to detect this reduction after the installation of red light cameras.”

In light of this, Houston police began to push Stein to weaken his design to match techniques used in studies conducted by insurance industry researchers and others with an interest in promoting the use of photo enforcement. In an April 29 meeting with police, Stein agreed to reconsider his results.

“Dr. Stein’s analysis of the original 20 intersections from Sept–Dec 2006 found 169 accidents,” Houston Police Lieutenant Jonathan Zera wrote. “However, HPD countered that the findings were flawed because: 1. All accidents within 500′ of the intersection were being counted. 2. All accidents within the intersection were being counted even if neither vehicle’s approach to the intersection was regulated by a red light camera. As such, Dr. Stein will re-analyze the 169 accidents.”

Realizing that an early copy of Stein’s work would be critical in understanding the truth about Houston’s red light camera program, a pair of attorneys made a request for a copy of the report’s first draft. When the city rejected the request, Randall L. Kallinen and Paul Kubosh filed a lawsuit forcing disclosure of the correspondence between Stein and the city. After reviewing the documents, Kallinen gave Professor Stein partial credit for his work.

“While Stein at first seemed to have leaned toward the police he rejected most of their attempts to change his report,” Kallinen told TheNewspaper. “He did however mislead the public through the report and to the press when he said accidents were increasing citywide when he knew for a fact they were decreasing citywide.”

Stein’s published report on the Houston program documented an increase in accidents at intersections that had red light cameras, but the greatest increase happened in the directions where the camera was not looking. Stein offered to explain this anomaly by creating the hypothesis that these “non-monitored” approaches were equivalent to intersection locations that had no red light cameras at all. This hypothesis—despite the negative data–allowed Stein to conclude that the cameras proved useful in reversing a general trend toward increased accidents throughout the city.

“Why have accidents at non-monitored approaches increased so dramatically in the past year?” Stein asked in his December report. “As suggested above, these results could be evidence of an increase in collisions across the city. . . . Using this methodology, the new analysis could reveal if, in fact, the red light cameras mitigated a general increase in accidents citywide. This observation, if found, would both confirm the public safety benefit of the red light cameras in Houston as well as advocate the expansion of the program.”

The problem with this theory was that there was no increase in collisions across the city—and Stein knew it before his report was published. Houston police documents show that accidents steadily dropped each year from 2004 to 2008. There were 81,238 accidents in 2004 and 67,405 in 2007–a 17 percent decrease.

“Wow, this is perfect, thanks so much,” Stein wrote in response to a November 13 email from a Houston officer containing a complete set of declining accident figures.

Several local media at the time painted a positive image for the red light camera program by widely reporting Stein’s citywide accident theory.

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18 Comments on “Houston Prof. Manipulated Study to Make Red Light Cameras Appear Safer...”

  • avatar

    A more measured response here:

  • avatar

    The City of Houston will do anything to increase their revenue. Not only are they doing false studies, they are also refusing to re-sync the signals in Downtown and other parts of Houston, because it results in more people running red lights. They don’t seem to care that it also results in more car and pedestrian accidents.

    I worked in the Downtown area for many years. Whenever the lights got un-synced because of power outages during storms, they were quickly synced back up within days. After the cameras were installed in 2006, the signals have been left alone. Driving thru Downtown is a huge hassle, you have to stop every 1 or 2 blocks. I’ve noticed more accidents. Even yesterday, a man was hit by a Metro bus!

    …All so they can get more money.

  • avatar

    I wonder if this is how global warming scientists and politicians work….

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    Follow the money. Organizations that commission studies always get the results they pay for.

  • avatar

    Interestingly, if a politician ever has to say
    “I am not trying to influence the conclusions”, that means he very pointedly is using all powers at his disposal precisely to influence the conclusions.

    Or else, you know, he wouldn’t have to say that.

  • avatar

    Could it be that rather than this being an institutional approach to raise more fines, that the city has just gotten lazy, and or cut resources for re-timing the lights?

    One thing that amazes me, and I’ve thought of this often, is that there is not a city-wide program relating one set of lights to another, so that all lamps on this network are re-synched periodically (like with daylight savings), or anytime there is a power interruption or other fault registerd at an intersection (like a fire-truck running-thru and flash-overiding the signal.) Shouldn’t such things be state of the art technology??

    p.s. If the offense is more serious than alignment of test parameters and interpretation (a non-partial 3rd-party review would have been advisable), then isn’t there some question of illegality involved here? Hello city council, hello?

  • avatar

    Don’t know about you, but I’d never trust anyone who looks like the guy pictured above.

  • avatar

    without diving headlong back into this argument, especially as this is just a fleshing out of old info, I’d like to point out something that bothers me.

    When I go through an intersection with a camera (at least once a day on Woodhaven Blvd.) I’m well aware that there is a camera in the intersection because of the flashes, and not because I see the box. I do not know which approaches are covered at all, nor do I have any idea if the coverage is lane specific etc… Why is lane coverage considered a factor worth consideration when determining wether cameras are reducing or causing accidents? In my experience, you put one camera at an intersection, and from the perspective of judging driver reaction, all approaches to those lights must be considered impacted.

    Also, it is a simple no-brainer that accidents will be affected by intersections at least 500 ft. away, sometimes more. Shortening that distance when measuring effect is outright dishonesty.

  • avatar

    Here in the peoples Republic of California, no front license plate = no camera ticket. So far it’s cheaper to take the plate hit than the red light hit.

    Also I always wonder (as I sit in stopped traffic) if we spent all the money we spend ridiculous CAFE laws and the such on actually improving traffic flow by synching lights and adding capacity, wouldn’t that have a far greater positive effect on emissions? I know my hwy mileage is far greater when I can run uninterrupted and the catalyst is good and hot doing it’s best work too.

  • avatar

    No, it’s basically impossible to synchronize lights enough to make that much of a difference. People vastly oversell the benefits of such a move. You either have a traditional grid downtown, in which case you can’t truly sequence more than a couple of corridors, or you have a modern crap downtown with only a couple of main corridors anyways (even worse for sequencing as there’s a lot more people needing to turn at any given time than on a traditional grid).

    Some of us have cars that don’t emit anything when stopped at a red light.

  • avatar

    Corruption in government?

    Say it isn’t so!

  • avatar

    Syncing lights for a vast downtown grid for all corridors is nearly impossible, but for a garden-variety residential-commercial area, like the ones I’ve lived in over the years, it’s quite simple.
    That never means they are synced, of course.
    (Impatient driver pet peeve alert)
    One corridor that serves the old residential area which I grew up in was synced rather well for most of the 80’s and 90’s until a center turn lane was added on top of right-turn arrow lights at certain intersections was added. Now everything is out of whack. 90% of westbound motorists will have to stop at an intersection with a N-S corridor, wait for the arrow, and then have to stop at another light 220 yards further west that turned red seconds after westbound traffic was allowed to resume. That N-S street had next to no traffic except when school got out and has yet to have a red light camera to take advantage of the westbound traffic that often runs it at 40+ MPH. It also happened to be the street I grew up on.
    (end alert)
    So after dealing with this for two of my college years, I moved to a smaller city and found that my fuel efficiency increased by at least 2 MPG contributed by not idling and accelerating at pointless red lights.

  • avatar


    Your link has someone suggesting we hold judgement until the next study is done. Only problem with that is ensuring it too isn’t tampered with.

    They can’t seem to get enough back bone to throw the scum off the board, or take away their tenure.
    If you give enough money, they don’t care how you got it (or if you paid taxes on it), and you can get on the board. Getting tenure, and the ability to get grants means you can get busted for stealing from the government, and keep your job.

    The recent stuff with the cabinet appointees is not at all surprising to me. In fact, it’s bush league stuff. Folks with political power and connections do as they please it seems.

  • avatar

    mhines, thats great. 2 mpg. Wow. That bring you up to 25 or so?

    I get 50 mpg in my Prius. With all those stop lights, even.

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    White emphasized his personal interest in the subject at the beginning of the project. “Let’s just make sure that we study things that really matter for decision-making,” Mayor White wrote to Professor Stein. “Our funds for public policy research are scarce. . . . I am not suggesting that somebody alter one’s conclusions and I am not trying to influence the conclusions. What I am trying to do is give some helpful advice from a decision-maker concerning how to avoid analytical overkill.”

    In Texas we call this a White lie.

  • avatar
    Evan is a Robot

    Hey now, M1EK, no need to get all in all self-righteous just because you drive a hybrid. I have to admit though, the ’10 Prius looks most intriguing, even if I won’t be in the market for such a thing for some time.

    On topic though, my hometown had the opposite happen. When business on the square died because of Wal-Mart, the city just shut the traffic lights off. Now it’s just 4-way stops, with hardly any waiting.

  • avatar

    Evan, the point is that synchronizing lights to save 2 mpg, even if it worked, which it doesn’t, is kind of stupid when we already have technologies that can just turn your engine off while you’re at the red light. There’s no magic synchronization fairy that will eliminate enough red lights to make much difference anyways.

  • avatar
    Evan is a Robot

    This is true, although it will take some time for such technology to become ubiquitous. I, for instance, am a college student with no job and little money, so I’ll be keeping my old first-gen Intrepid ’til the wheels fall off, and Lord knows what kind of mileage that thing’s getting. At any rate, I can’t even remember the last time I drove in an urban environment, so I guess red lights aren’t too much of a hassle for me. (small town Iowa FTW!)

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