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The Safety Myth

Photo-radar cameras are designed to catch speeders and save lives. Only, there's not much evidence that the speed limit is any safer. Part 3 in a series.

11:00 PM, Apr 2, 2002 • By MATT LABASH
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Part 3 in a 5 part series.

Part 1 Inside the District's Red Lights: Red-light cameras and photo radar are all over Washington--and coming to a city near you. The science behind them is bad and the police are using them to make money, not save lives. It's much worse than you thought.

Part 2 The Yellow Menace: The police could make intersections safer with longer yellow lights. But the city wouldn't make any money that way.

SAFETY IS, of course, the flimsily constructed edifice upon which the entire argument for automated enforcement rests. But to get at the facts, one must wade through the myths, which could take years, and in some cases has. Greg Mauz, a Delray Beach-based activist with the National Motorists Association, sleeps, eats, and breathes automated traffic enforcement. Two years ago, he quit his job as a truck driver, convinced his loan-officer wife to fund his costly habit, and holed up for study until he became a one-man anti-camera-enforcement demolition crew.

Subsequently, Mauz has emerged with a 96-page book entitled "Camera Enforcement: Developing the Factual Picture." The book, or rather, the booklet--it's bound with a red plastic spiral Mauz got on the cheap at Office Depot--is, like Greg, a tad overheated. But otherwise, it is a stinging indictment, a tightly constructed hanging brief that leaves no canard intact. (You can order it by calling Greg at his house--561.243.0920. Seriously.)

On the phone, Greg speaks in bellowing, stentorian pronouncements, like an angry prophet who has spent too many years in the wilderness and who's badly in need of an audience. His delivery is stream-of-consciousness, studded with the statistical accident arcana and other secret knowledge that comes from too many years of reading traffic manuals. Places like the Insurance Institute on Highway Safety, Mauz says, are "hoodwinking the public on every part of this issue. When they promote a so-called safety program, they exaggerate the problem to solve it." Among Mauz's more counterintuitive assertions are that speed limits are chronically set too low, camera enforcement causes accidents, and the false security that cameras afford keeps police officers from pulling truly dangerous drivers--such as drunks--off the road. "Like I said to some politician the other day," rails Mauz, "'If you were dying of a heart attack, would you want a doctor with a defibrillator to save you, or would you want somebody snapping a picture of the situation?'"

After years of droning jeremiads from safety mavens who preach that speed kills, Mauz's offerings might sound just shy of daffy. But he has a secret weapon he breaks out in debate: the government's own data. On Mauz's recommendation, I pick up a copy of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's "Traffic Safety Facts 1999," the latest year for which crash data and fatality analysis are accumulated. NHTSA, it should be noted, has endorsed automated traffic enforcement. And the data it collects have some inherent flaws, since the agency often lists several factors in an accident that, when pigeon-holed in a database, can skew some categories. For instance, if a motorist wrecks his car while drinking a tumbler-full of bourbon, making fondue, and driving 10 miles over the speed limit, that could very well get classified as a speed-related accident. (Even so, Car and Driver has noted that according to NHTSA's data, only 3.1 percent of fatal crashes list speed as the only related factor.)

That said, NHTSA's databases are the best we have. Automated-enforcement boosters cut and paste from its findings all the time, causing one NHTSA spokesperson to allow, "People extrapolate from our statistics, but we don't stand behind them. Scientifically speaking, we don't have accurate statistics on red-light running based on our databases." This is a fairly significant admission, since camera advocates love to depict speeding and red-light-running "epidemics," with old ladies being mowed down in crosswalks and children being slaughtered like lambs by runaway lead-foots.

Even if it's not much of a beach read, "Traffic Safety Facts" tells a fascinating tale not often told by these same people--namely, the truth. While safety Cassandras love to say that accidents increased from 1992 to 1996, they conveniently select those years as bookends since 1992 was an aberrantly low-accident year, and in 1996 accidents were nearly as high as they've ever been. But when considering the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, that number has declined or held steady every year since 1977. And since 1988, injury rates per 100 million vehicle miles traveled have declined or held steady every year except two (in 1994 and 1995).

Both fatality and injury rates are at an all-time low, with a mere 1.5 and 120 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, respectively. If there was ever a safer time to drive a car than 1999, it was probably 2000--though those statistics are not yet processed. No matter, says the camera enforcement crowd--speeders and red-light runners are causing the bulk of havoc on our roads.

Except that they're not. According to NHTSA, 38 percent of all fatal crashes involve alcohol, and drunk drivers should logically be the most enthusiastic boosters of camera enforcement--since a red-light-camera-monitored intersection ensures no cops will be present. From the drunk's point of view, a red-light citation in the mail beats a DWI arrest. NHTSA's data show that only 21 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes had racked up speeding convictions within 3 years of the date of their crash, while 57.3 percent had no driving convictions over the same period. This appears to buttress photo radar opponents' argument that speeding doesn't kill people, bad driving does.

Among the "Related Factors for Drivers Involved in Fatal Crashes," speeding and red-light running aren't even the league leaders. NHTSA records factors in such a way that more than one can be listed for any given driver, meaning that the categories listed add up to 146.9 percent of all factors, instead of 100 percent. But after considering that 36.5 percent of drivers had no factors reported, or that NHTSA's "Related Factors" table doesn't account for drunk drivers (NHTSA says elsewhere that 38 percent of fatal crashes are "alcohol related") "failure to keep in proper lane or running off the road" is by far the most frequent related factor for drivers involved in fatal crashes.

Speeding ranks a distant second at 19.7 percent. Though that figure accounts for not even one-fifth of the possible factors listed, even that is padded since it covers not just those who are exceeding the speed limit, but also those who are "driving too fast for conditions" (a problem photo radar doesn't address). While it's certainly more dangerous to have an accident at higher speed (52.5 percent of fatal accidents occur in 55 mph or higher speed zones), NHTSA's data suggest speed alone doesn't account for most accidents. If it did, why would over one fourth of all crashes (26.1 percent) occur in speed limit zones of 30 mph or less, while 77 percent happen in 50 mph zones or less? By contrast, 60 mph or higher zones account for a paltry 8.1 percent of all accidents."

Mauz's contention that speed limits are too low (which affects the number of photo-radar citations as well as formulas for yellow-light intervals) isn't just the fanciful rambling of an underemployed traffic researcher. It is backed, albeit quietly, by no less an authority than the Federal Highway Administration. During the last decade, one FHWA study confirmed what any common-sense driver knows: Motorists, as the engineers like to say, drive the geometrics of the road. That is, they find the natural speed for a road and stick with it--regardless of the speed limit. This is why, if you conduct an unscientific experiment driving 55 mph on your local open stretch of highway, you will be passed by over two-thirds of your fellow motorists.

But the FHWA conducted a scientific experiment over a five-year period, and found that the 85th percentile speed--or the speed under which 85 percent of drivers travel--changed no more than 1 to 2 mph even when the speed limit changed 15 mph. In another study, the same engineers--one of whom was Dr. Samuel Tignor, who just retired as the FHWA's technical director for safety and research development--found that "current speed limits are set too low to be accepted as reasonable by the vast majority of drivers. Only about 1 in 10 speed zones has better than 50 percent compliance. The posted speeds make technical violators out of motorists driving at reasonable and safe speeds."

The researchers concluded that most speed zones were posted 15 mph below the "maximum safe speed," and suggested that increasing speed limits would help increase compliance and target only the most dangerous drivers--far from the credo of automated enforcement, which has been known to nab everyone from low-level speeders to funeral processions. Most people, naturally, have never heard of these studies, which Dr. Tignor says is no accident. Though the safety-conscious FHWA took no issue with the research's conclusions, says Tignor, "It was more of an issue of how shall we toot our horn or should we not toot it relative to this controversial area. They didn't really toot it."

Tune in Thursday for Part 4: Getting Rear-Ended by the Law

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5

Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

Correction Appended, 4/17/02