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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one
 

Red-light cameras no be-all, end-all

By Sara Foss
Saturday, June 7, 2014

When it comes to driving, we all have our pet peeve. For me, it’s double-parking.

Driving down Central Avenue in Albany, which is rife with double-parkers, often makes me feel like tearing out my hair.

But other traffic violations, such as the illegal maneuver typically referred to as the Albany Left Turn, don’t bother me as much, though others regard it as a major hazard and irritant. For those who don’t know, the Albany Left Turn is what happens when, rather than yield to the car headed straight through a red light, as required by law, the driver making a left turn goes first, cutting off oncoming traffic.

Another problem is a long-standing tradition of running red lights. The sight of a driver zipping through a red light is so common that I scarcely notice it anymore, which might explain why I was a little surprised when a friend of mine became visibly emotional while discussing the issue.

“There is a culture of running red lights in this city!” he yelled. “It’s out of control!”

My friend isn’t the only person who’s sick of people running red lights. The city of Albany is seeking permission from the state to install red-light cameras. So is Schenectady.

Both cities say the cameras will improve public safety by photographing and fining motorists who zip through red lights. Over time, bad drivers will change their ways, and accidents at troublesome intersections, such as the Brandywine Avenue corridor between State Street and Interstate 890 in Schenectady, will decrease.

Fines would start at $100, and the ticket would be mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle captured on camera. There would be no impact on the driver’s record, or their insurance rates.

Cynics will suggest the red-light cameras are really just a tool for generating revenue for cash-strapped municipalities. And while this isn’t completely implausible, I don’t necessarily have a huge problem with cities turning to people who run red lights for extra cash. I often wish Albany would generate some revenue by slapping tickets on cars double-parked on Central Avenue.

That said, it’s probably worth noting that officials in both Schenectady and Albany say they believe the cameras will make city streets safer.

“I know personally some of our intersections are quite dangerous,” said Schenectady city Councilman Carl Erikson. “Would a camera, in certain locations, put people on their best behavior and save some lives?”

Which is a question worth considering: Do red-light cameras work? Well, after looking into the matter, I can report research appears to be mixed.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Highway Administration say red-light cameras can be a very effective tool for preventing people from running red lights, and a 2011 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found cities that installed the cameras saw a significant drop in accidents.

But other studies paint a murkier, even contradictory, picture. A 2012 study by researchers at the University of South Florida found the cameras failed to reduce red-light crashes or red-light running. Those researchers said they corrected the “methodological errors” of the IIHS study and concluded the cameras have no benefit.

Another study, released last year by a team of researchers at the University of Tennessee, found the more effective the red-light camera system, the less likely it is to make money. They claim some cities have engineered their camera systems to generate more revenue, which can actually increase the likelihood of accidents.

“Traffic engineers are facing an ethical dilemma of balancing revenue generation to sustain their red-light camera programs with their traffic safety and efficiency goals,” Lee Han, a co-author of the study, told National Public Radio. “This is a new conundrum for them.”

In other words, a good red-light camera system should eventually become obsolete, as drivers wake up to the fact that the cameras are there and adjust their behavior.

It appears that some municipalities have decided to discontinue their red-light camera systems. A Wall Street Journal article from March reported that after a decade of growth, the number of communities employing such systems has dropped about 6 percent. John Ducey, the mayor of Brick, New Jersey, told the newspaper it was “time for them to go,” and “the only justification for them is to improve public safety, but it seems ours were doing exactly the opposite.”

So I don’t know what to tell you. Are red-light cameras a good idea? Possibly.

But it sounds like the design of the program is critical, and if a city is raking in an unseemly amount of money, it’s worth asking about what’s really being accomplished.

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at sfoss@dailygazette.net.

 

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