Red light cameras haven't cut crashes -- but collected revenue
By SCOTT DAUGHERTY, Staff Writer
When cameras were installed at five county intersections in 2000, police claimed the devices would deter red-light running and reduce accidents.
Almost six years later, the county has issued almost 38,000 tickets, collected $2.85 million in fines and let out a new contract to keep the cameras running, but officials can't prove any public safety benefits.
"We can't know the number of accidents that haven't occurred," said Lt. David Waltemeyer, county police spokesman.
New cameras started issuing tickets yesterday for the first time since last July, when the original contract expired.
An analysis by The Capital of accident statistics at the five intersections in Arnold, Pasadena, Parole, and Crofton for the past 10 years found no obvious reductions in accidents since 2000, when the cameras were first installed. The numbers fluctuated greatly from year to year - from a low of 107 in 1999 to a high of 151 in 2002.
Traffic volumes at all five intersections, when taken as a whole, went up 10 percent between 2000 and 2005,
After reviewing the statistics, Dr. G.L. Chang, director of the Traffic Safety and Operations Lab at the University of Maryland, said there was no evidence to show the cameras had reduced traffic accidents or improved traffic safety at those five intersections.
Lt. Waltemeyer noted that the number of citations issued by the cameras dropped 45 percent between fiscal 2000 and fiscal 2005, arguing they did at least deter people from running the red lights. The cameras issued 11,109 tickets between July 1, 2000, and June 30, 2001, but only issued 6,168 during the same period ending in 2005.
"If we prevent one person from running a red light and killing another motorist, we think it is appropriate," Lt. Waltemeyer said.
While the numbers show no downward trend in the number of accidents, researchers at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which advocates the use of cameras, say the statistics prove nothing about the effectiveness of the devices.
"These numbers are useless in doing a red light camera study," said Russ Rader, IIHS spokesman, after seeing a summary of the county's data. He said the effect of red light cameras is not limited to intersections with cameras.
"For traffic safety studies, you have to ask the question: What would have happened if the countermeasure was not in place?" he said.
He also said the department's lumping of angle crashes - T-bones - into a category called "other" puts a major hole in the data set because they are the crashes most likely to result from red-light running. He said its impossible to tell if the cameras are reducing such wrecks with them grouped together with other collisions.
Dr. Chang said the county's numbers weren't perfect, but offered enough insight for him to say the cameras didn't help at the five intersections.
"That is for sure," he said.
He noted that when police installed the cameras in 2000, there was almost a 40 percent increase in the number of rear-end wrecks - from 53 in 1999 to 74 in 2000. He said drivers who are not used to seeing the cameras tend to slam on the brakes and cause more of those accidents.
Over the next couple years though, the number of accidents dropped off across the board - from 150 in 2000 to 134 in 2001. Rear-end collisions alone dropped 15 percent that year.
Dr. Chang stressed that for the cameras to prevent accidents, signs should warn drivers of them well in front of the intersection. No signs were posted last week warning motorists of the cameras.
"In principal, I support red light cameras," he said. "But in too many jurisdiction they are not trying to improve safety, they are trying to issue tickets."
More than money
While the new contractor behind the county's five cameras is a for-profit company, the CEO of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based American Traffic Solutions said that is not its only motivation.
"If we don't show results, people won't contract with us," said Jim Tuton, whose company runs cameras in New York City, Philadelphia and Laurel. "It is very rare the cameras don't result in a rapid reduction in accidents."
ATS won the new one-year contract late last year, beating out two other companies. The county has the option to renew the contract for up to five years. Police let a five-year deal with Lockheed Martin - now ACS - expire in June.
Lt. Tom Wilson, commander of the Management and Planning Section, explained in September, when ACS officials started taking down its cameras, that technology had significantly improved over the past five years and that the county didn't want to rush a decision just for the sake of preventing a gap in coverage.
"Our technology is very advanced and catches more than the old system," said Mr. Tuton, predicting more tickets will be issued with the new cameras. He said unlike the old film cameras, the new digital cameras can monitor all travel lanes in a given direction, instead of just one, and offer higher resolutions. The new cameras also record video as well as two still photos, showing exactly what happened when the car ran the red light. That means people can't blame an ambulance or funeral procession for making them run the light unless that truly is the case.
After the first year increase, Mr. Tuton hopes to see a 45 percent drop in tickets issued by the cameras.
The new contract is actually a better deal for the county. Under the new contract, ATS gets $20 from every ticket. Under the old contract, ACS received $23 from every ticket, plus a small processing fee. ACS took about $872,000 of the nearly $2.85 million collected through the cameras.
The effectiveness of red light cameras - which are used in 21 states and two territories including Washington D.C., Delaware and Virginia - at reducing accidents has been questioned by a variety of groups in the past year, from the Virginia Department of Transportation to The Washington Post.
A January 2005 study by the Virginia Transportation Research Council - sponsored jointly by VDOT and the University of Virginia - concluded the cameras had only "the potential" to improve traffic safety. After reviewing statistics from the seven jurisdictions in Virginia that have active red light cameras though, they could not produce any numbers that showed a significant drop in accidents. Still, the council recommended the cameras continued use for at least one year to allow more data to be collected and more definitive conclusions to be drawn.
And in October, the Post published an analysis of District of Columbia crash statistics that showed the number of accidents at intersections with red-light cameras actually rose. The increase was the same or worse as at traffic signals without the cameras. According to the Post, the District collected $32 million in fines over six years.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety questioned the validity of the newspaper's analysis though, claiming a change in the way crash statistics were reported between 1999 and 2000 skewed their data.
"That, in and of itself, makes it impossible to do a before and after analysis," said Russ Rader, attacking the data. He added that the Post's analysis showed broadside crashes went up at the intersections with cameras as well - but never looked at why. He said critics of the cameras don't even claim they cause more t-bone wrecks.
Several other studies - conducted by the Federal Highway Administration and academic researchers - have concluded that the cameras probably increase rear-end crashes, but reduce side-impact crashes and overall injury accidents.
The county's new cameras are running at the same locations as their old counterparts:
Northbound Riva Road and Aris T. Allen Boulevard in Parole.
Southbound Route 2 and College Parkway in Arnold.
Southbound Route 2 and Arnold Road in Arnold.
Southbound Route 2 and Route 10 in Pasadena.
Southbound Route 3 and Johns Hopkins Road in Crofton.
In addition, Annapolis has cameras running at the intersections of Chinquapin Round Road and Aris T. Allen Boulevard, and Forest Drive and Hilltop Lane.