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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.