Posts about Traffic Cameras
Vehicle speed kills. Even a small increase in speed can mean the difference between life and death for a pedestrian. But laws limiting speed camera enforcement make them less effective at making our streets safer.
At 20 miles per hour, when a motorist hits a pedestrian, the pedestrian has a 90 percent chance of surviving the crash. At 30 miles per hour, the chance of survival has dropped to 50%. At 40 miles per hour, the pedestrian has a 90% chance of dying.
Graphic from PEDS Atlanta.
In Maryland, speed camera tickets can only be issued to motorists going at least 12 miles per hour over the speed limit. That severely blunts the effectiveness of the cameras for saving lives.
In my neighborhood on the east side of Greenbelt, the city has installed speed cameras on 2 neighborhood streets near Eleanor Roosevelt High School. One of the cameras is near a well-used, mid-block crosswalk that many students use. The speed limit in these areas is 25 mph, which means that drivers have to be going 37 mph before they get a ticket.
A collision at 25 mph would be less than 50% likely to kill a pedestrian. But a collision at 37 mph would bring an almost 90% chance of death.
On Monday, I witnessed a driver flying down the street, well above the speed limit. But I wondered if he was even going fast enough to get a ticket from the speed camera. Even on a quiet neighborhood street, drivers in Greenbelt can go fast enough to cause almost certain death for pedestrians without fearing a speed camera ticket.
That's the real effect of Maryland's speed camera restrictions: It allows drivers some leeway, but puts vulnerable road users at risk.
But it's actually worse than that, because the speed limit itself is actually determined using the arcane "85th percentile speed" in many places, including by the Maryland State Highway Administration. While that's not a factor on my street, it is on other streets nearby, and throughout the state.
Essentially, highway engineers look at how fast people drive. And they set the speed limit for what 85% of motorists drive. So, for example, on a street, if 85% of drivers go 40 mph, the speed limit is set at 40, even if circumstances (like the presence of a school) suggest that it should be lower.
And remember, that our highways are already designed for speed. The concept of driver forgiveness means that engineers try to design broad curves, wide lanes, and open spaces so that if a driver makes a mistake, it won't be fatal (for the driver). But these design choices also give subtle psychological hints to drivers to go faster.
And then they set the speed limits based on how fast drivers actually go. And then we limit automated enforcement to 12 mph over that. The result, of course, is that when a pedestrian is struck, the chance of survival is far too low. Especially in the suburbs.
Maryland could help by lowering the threshold for automated speed enforcement. In the District, there is no threshold for speed cameras. A driver can be ticketed for going just 1 mile per hour over the limit.
Red light cameras are supposed to improve safety, but in 2013 their use actually went down. Are they on the wane? Our contributors give their insight.
Modesto, California has found that cameras may not be worth the trouble. They don't monitor all the lanes at an intersection, most of the revenue goes to the vendor that operates the system, and the fines are shockingly high. And studies, including one of local Virginia jurisdictions, conclude the red light camera effect on safety is ambiguous. Should we fix the problems with cameras, or focus our efforts elsewhere?
Dan Malouff: Many people don't like cameras because they intrude on our collective sense of entitlement to break traffic laws with impunity. But that entitlement should be intruded upon. Yes, governments should of course strive to get cameras right and deploy them fairly, but laws should be enforced. If it turns out that enforcing these laws is somehow unsafe (a claim I'm skeptical of), then the law should change, not the tactic of enforcing it.
Canaan Merchant: Data I'd seen before had convinced me of a red light camera's effectiveness. This and other studies I've seen recently have cast some of that into doubt. Still, I think the problems that people have with automated traffic enforcement mainly stem from poor management in developing the systems, usually by just selecting a vendor without a clear oversight process, and problems that people have with due process once a ticket is issued.
The former should absolutely be an area of concern while the latter may just be indicative of problems that have always existed but ignored because an individual's likelihood of getting a ticket was lower. If both of those issues are handled competently then I think camera enforcement will generally be a net-positive for a given intersection.
Still the best way to tackle the problem would be to make red lights more irrelevant. That means focusing on solutions that move people without requiring the use of a car.
Neil Flanagan: Traffic cameras, whether they're at red lights or to control speeding, should always be a second choice. Better design of the roadway should always be the priority. Narrower lanes, neck-downs, medians, and shorter distances between intersections can discourage speeding and remind drivers that they're approaching an intersection. Marking the pavement where a driver should brake if they see yellow might also help.
The goal should be to make intersections safe for all users, not uphold the law strictly. Starting from there, you can see another problem. Left out of this article, too, were non-motorists. Cars are engineered to protect drivers. The street is the only protection a pedestrian has.
That said, I'll echo the sense of entitlement to the right-of-way. The top comments on the article are a slew of excuses for traffic violations, like this one by "Biceps:"
Perfect example: a co-worker of mine got a photo of herself from an RLC in the mail - it was *classic*. It was a perfect pic of her driving through the intersection, looking way to her left, mouth wide agape, with a cellphone right up against her head. She didn't even remember running the light. It was a [expletive] awesome photo."It wasn't her fault, he explains: she wasn't trying to speed through the light, she just wasn't paying attention! The engineer of the recent Metro-North accident was not given the same benefit of the doubt for spacing out, even though railroads are still safer per passenger-mile.
Adam Froehlig: I have always seen red light cameras as a local jurisdiction's attempt to replace traffic enforcement with a revenue generation tool. This is especially apparent in DC, where the revenues the cameras generate is well publicized and leads to much of the public angst against the program. A well-designed program puts this revenue back into safety programs and street improvements, but DC simply adds it to its general fund.
The safety record of red light cameras is a bit mixed. While they do help prevent the more serious right-angle crashes that often result in injuries and the occasional fatality, they can actually increase the overall crash rate due to rear-end crashes caused by the lead driver slamming on their brakes to avoid the red (and the camera ticket) and the driver behind them not stopping in time to avoid the rear-end crash.
Another item to consider: due to legal reasons, the red light camera can only fine the owner of the vehicle, it cannot target the operator. While the vehicle owner is usually the operator, this is not always a case. Compare this with a law enforcement official pulling over a vehicle and issuing the driver a ticket, where the driver (if unsuccessful in their "defense") will not only have to pay a fine, but will also lose points on their license.
While it helps reduce crash severity, it's at best a mediocre replacement for an actual law enforcement official doing traffic enforcement.
Ben Ross: Surely the reason for rear end crashes at red light cameras is that the driver in the first car doesn't expect the camera and then stops suddenly, and the driver in the second car also doesn't expect the camera and is therefore unprepared for the first driver's sudden maneuver. With more cameras these problems would vanish. It's like with cyclists, there's safety in numbers.
Abigail Zenner: Although I wish that red light and speed cameras were not needed, sadly drivers' impatience has a tendency to cause very dangerous situations. We also see that law enforcement either cannot be everywhere all the time or cannot always pull over the driver who runs a red light. Drivers also complain that red light cameras catch legal right turns at some intersections, although I have often wondered if the driver came to a complete stop prior to the right turn.
I would love to see some more awareness campaigns on driver attentiveness and explain to drivers why we have the laws we do. Many times, impatient behavior by drivers actually slows traffic down and creates more hazard.
I am fascinated by some experiments, like the one in Texas that rewards drivers for good driving behavior with cash or prizes. Cameras could also provide these rewards. The winner of the VW Fun Theory contest had this idea to enroll good drivers in a lottery when caught driving at or below the speed limit. Maybe we can come up with more carrots and more education to balance out the stick of a ticket.
Jim Titus: Do you remember what it was like before the red-light cameras?
We had trains on tires. Drivers regularly ran red lights as long as they were within 30 feet of the rear end of another car going through the intersection. Drivers with a green light often had to edge their way into these trains of red-light runners. Most drivers in the District of Columbia stop at red lights now.
Maybe today, some tailgating distracted drivers rear-end cars that stop at yellow lights. But in those days, people who stopped at newly red lights faced the same fate.
Freshman Congressman Kerry Bentivolio (R-MI) wants to use Congress' power over DC to ban red light and speed cameras. On Friday, at-large DC Councilmember Vincent Orange said he wants to take action, instead of Congress, to place a moratorium on cameras and other restrictions.
In his letter to Bentivolio, Orange referred to "problems" with the camera system, but didn't specify what problems. The only evident rationale is the widespread attitude among many elected officials and residents, that speeding is really not a problem and is not a law we need to enforce.
Camera opponents have repeatedly lamented the way camera revenue helps shore up DC's budget. However, Chairman Phil Mendelson actually just made a budget change to weaken the link between cameras and a balanced budget. Instead of making the objection to cameras go away, that may have given Orange an opening to block enforcement.
When cameras aren't about revenue, that's when they get cut?
In the final budget, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson rearranged the way camera revenues factor into the budget. Instead of the money going toward the general fund, Mendelson replaced it with revenue from an Internet sales tax, in the event that Congress lets DC and states tax Internet sales.
Mary Cheh and Jim Graham had hoped to use the sales tax money to fight homelessness. Mendelson used it to remove any budget dependency on cameras. The camera money would instead go into a pot for Metro long-term improvements like 8-car trains and connecting walkways.
Mendelson stated that his reason was to ensure that any changes the council might want to make to cameras has no "fiscal impact"; that it doesn't unbalance the budget. Orange's bill would cause a big budget hole, and DC can't pass bills which unbalance the budget. If the Internet sales tax comes in, however, Mendelson's maneuver would free Orange's bill of this problem.
The big loser would be that Metro money, but since that's in the future and the details are still fuzzy, the council can raid that with impunity. So while having camera revenue plug holes in the budget is not ideal, it kept members like Orange and Mendelson from putting their own lead feet over neighborhood needs. With the barrier gone, so is that obstacle to a bill like Orange's.
Scarcely was the ink dry on the budget before Orange took that next step to block any new enforcement, even where residents have been clamoring for slower speeds and less red light running in their neighborhoods.
Speeding is one of the few laws many people just don't want enforced
Orange said he was going to introduce his bill at the next legislative session, but is announcing now to try to let the council excuse speeding before Congress can. The bill would place a 2-year moratorium on any new cameras, require DC to place signs before each camera, and justify the safety basis for each location.
That last part, which just demands reports on the safety impact of each camera, isn't so terrible, but largely duplicates a budget amendment David Grosso (at-large) already added this year.
In response to the news, Benjamin Cooper tweeted, "guess someone got a ticket." Indeed, it would be fascinating to find out if Bentivolio received a ticket recently.
This is the fundamental problem facing pedestrian safety in DC neighborhoods. A lot of people don't believe speeding in residential areas, even 10 mph over the limit, is a big deal. Most of us who drive do it. But the consequences can be grave.
Lawmakers show little interest in excusing unlawful action in other realms. They don't seek to put limits on the police's ability to stop drivers and search for marijuana, guns, or stolen goods. This despite the fact that studies show black drivers are far more likely to get pulled over and searched than white ones.
Maybe that's because speeding is one crime where the lawmakers see themselves in the role of the hurried driver and far less often as the senior trying to cross a wide street on foot. All other consternation, like about the program serving as a revenue stream, rings quite hollow, especially since the amount of complaining only rose after DC lowered fines last year.
Sure, it would be nice if the counterargument that it's "just about revenue" didn't exist, but in fact, the revenue has prevented lawmakers from deleting cameras before. Ironically, the moment camera revenue and the budget get (at least provisionally) split up, alleviating arguments that DC is dependent on the revenue, that's the very time lawmakers start taking steps to block the government from curbing dangerous driving behavior.
WAMU Politics Hour co-host, NBC 4 reporter, and Dream City co-author Tom Sherwood defended the District's speed camera enforcement program during a brief exchange with host Kojo Nnamdi on last Friday's show.
Sherwood said he felt "irritated" by the May 29 Washington Post article by Ashley Halsey III on speed cameras. That story led off with the fact that one camera in the K Street underpass below Washington Circle wrote $8.1 million in tickets in 7 months.
The story did not talk about the effect of speeding on residents of Foggy Bottom, including seniors and families, or people walking to or from GW hospital, Sherwood said. From the Politics Hour transcript:
Kojo Nnamdi: Speaking of crowds, there seem to be a lot of crowds driving down K Street Northwest at rapid speeds or going through traffic lights because one camera on K Street Northwest has brought in more than $8 million into the District of Columbia's coffers during the course of the current fiscal year.
There was a camera on New York Avenue that used to come in first, but apparently, that has been surpassed by the camera on K Street. But we have to say that the District of Columbia government said, "This is not about the revenue. This is not about the money. This is about controlling traffic. The money means nothing to us."
Tom Sherwood: You know, I hear the skepticism in your voice. I hear the derision, the...
Kojo Nnamdi: Nothing.
Tom Sherwood: Well, let me say this, that's
— the Post story — I was irritated by the Post story. I think there's a story there about how the city is doing camera money, but to say that the city is getting a windfall from that one camera, ... [crosstalk deleted]
I was irritated the way other people play this story. On that K Street, the 2200 block or whatever it is, the cameras there, about 32,000 cars, vehicles go through there each day. The camera gives out about 300 tickets. Now, just math-wise, I think that's maybe 1 percent of the cars. The amount of money the city gets from ticket revenue is one-half of 1 percent of the city's entire budget.
And the Post story also didn't point out that since the city has been using speed cameras because citizens who live there, there's a hospital over there, there are senior citizens, there are families with children, they don't want those commuters rushing to get up onto the freeway going over into Virginia or in coming back. Since 2001, fatalities on the streets of the city from vehicular accidents has dropped 76 percent in part, Chief Lanier says, because we have speed cameras. Now, I can go on, but I think the point is made. There's ...
Kojo Nnamdi: Mayor Sherwood has spoken.
Tom Sherwood: So, yes, you know, if
— I don't know that 25 miles an hour is the right speed limit for that tunnel. I think probably it sounds low. But if you move it up to 30 or 35, then you can only write a ticket for someone going 45, and then you're getting up close to 50. So, anyway, that's the issue. It's more than just the city taking in money. It's not raking in money. It's not squeezing people unfairly. No one says the cameras don't operate correctly. And as Chief Lanier always says, you can't get a ticket if you're not speeding.
Kojo Nnamdi: It's just that to the average person, $8 million does seem like a lot of money. But moving on...
Tom Sherwood: Maybe.
Tragically, people are getting killed on District streets, two in one day in February. Experts acknowledge that stopping these deaths is a major challenge. In something of a reversal from decades past, as demographics and living patterns shift, it's also a serious problem in suburban areas such as Montgomery County.
What is the D.C. Council doing about it? Adding police? Investigating thoroughly? No. In fact, in the budget the council passed this month, Chairman Phil Mendelson dedicated considerable future revenue to ease punishment for those whose dangerous actions put others at risk, while simultaneously restraining the police from expanding enforcement.
I'm not talking about murder and similar violence, though violence in our city is no laughing matter. This problem strikes far closer to home for most of us: distracted driving, speeding, unsafe right turns on red or through crosswalks, red-light running and other forms of unsafe driving.
Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.
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