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Getting Rear-Ended by the Law

Red-light cameras actually cause an increase in rear-end accidents. The pro-camera forces know this and are trying to keep you from seeing the data. Part 4 in a series.

11:00 PM, Apr 3, 2002 • By MATT LABASH
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Part 4 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.

Part 3 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.

IF THE pro-camera forces don't have the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's stats, the Federal Highway Administration's research, or the truth on their side, they have something better: the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's senior transportation engineer and lead red-light-camera proponent, Richard Retting. Retting is a near ubiquitous presence in the debate. Statistics floated by his Institute are unblinkingly regurgitated by journalists, even if no one notices, for instance, that they have variously put the number of annual red-light-running fatalities at 750, 800, or 850 depending on which day you catch them.

The fact that Retting is considered the scientific authority on automated enforcement drives people like Greg Mauz (author of "Camera Enforcement: Developing the Factual Picture") around the bend, since the Institute is "wholly supported," as its literature explains, by 79 auto insurance companies. Taking Retting's word on the safety benefits of camera enforcement, say the critics, is a bit like trusting the Tobacco Institute that smoking increases lung capacity.

While most states don't yet assess driver's license points for automated infractions, plenty are toying with the idea, and a few, like California and Arizona, actually do. The insurance industry, then, has a financial stake in seeing as many photo tickets issued as possible, since speeding and red-light infractions allow insurance companies to bleed their customers with higher premiums for the next three to five years. "It's free money," says Mauz.

During a House Transportation subcommittee hearing on red-light cameras last July, I run into Richard Retting. In an obvious "screw-you" by his bete noire Dick Armey, who has engineered the hearing, Retting has conspicuously not been asked to testify. He seems a little hurt, though he takes a stab at self-deprecation, joking that Armey called him the "father of the Red Light Camera movement," and he's tempted "to ask for a paternity test." Before becoming a researcher for the insurance industry, Retting made his bones as Highway Safety Director for the New York City Department of Transportation, where he picked up the coveted Volvo Traffic Safety Award.

When not sounding off about the benefits of roundabouts or the evils of poorly designed crosswalks, Retting has made red-light cameras a near full-time pursuit. Other than Retting's, there have been few studies on red-light cameras. The most rigorous was a 1995 study conducted by the Australian Road Research Board which examined red-light-camera intersection accidents for the five years before and after the cameras were installed. The report concluded--unpopularly with camera manufacturers and police departments--that "there has been no demonstrated value" of the red-light camera "as an effective countermeasure."

The Australian report, however, is rarely cited. Its most controversial finding, ironically, is one Retting grudgingly concedes--that red-light-camera intersections tend to see increases in rear-end accidents from people slamming on their brakes to avoid being ticketed. Oddly enough, most of the anti-camera forces' best arguments are buried deep in the bowels of Retting's own studies. While those who skim his conclusions to justify camera enforcement wouldn't know it, over the years Retting has asserted that too little yellow time causes people to run red lights inadvertently, that nearly four-fifths of red-light runners do so less than a second after the light changes, that over one-third of red-light running incidents are alcohol related, and that one-fourth of the people cited by the cameras aren't driving during the infraction.

The capstone of Retting's work, however, is a pair of reports known as "The Oxnard studies." Monitoring the effects of red-light cameras in Oxnard, California, in 1997, Retting compared camera and non-camera sites. He concluded that the number of red-light-running incidents was reduced at nine camera sites by anywhere from 22 to 62 percent--a huge shot in the arm to camera boosters. The only hitch was, during the same period, his three non-camera sites performed even better, with decreases in violations on average 10 percent greater than at the camera sites.

For many researchers, this might seem problematic. But not for Retting, who theorized that the "statistically insignificant" difference between the sites was due to "spillover effect"--that is, the red-light cameras caused reductions at non-camera sites. Score one for automated enforcement! The fact that the non-camera intersections outperformed the camera intersections for what might have been any variety of reasons (public education, police presence at other intersections, etc.) didn't alter Retting's conclusion. He declared victory and left town, saying that further study of violations in Oxnard would be pointless since publicity resulting from the state's more than doubling the fine for running a red light, from $104 to $270, would influence results.

In April 2001, Retting introduced the second of his Oxnard studies, this time dealing with crash effects at red-light camera intersections. As could be expected, Retting concluded that red-light cameras "reduce the risk of motor vehicle crashes, particularly injury crashes." In fact, he extrapolated, even though cameras were used on only 2 percent of the approaches to the city's intersections, there were crash reductions citywide. (More spillover effect!)

But one doesn't have to review the report all that closely to uncover significant problems. First, Retting admits that the crash data he studied "did not contain sufficient detail to identify crashes that were specifically [caused by] red light running." Some might consider that a fatal shortcoming in a study that purports to examine red-light-running crashes. Next, he discloses that he didn't study crashes at the 11 red-light-camera intersections, but rather at all intersections, since "prior research documents" a large "spillover effect." (The prior research, of course, being his.)

Most interesting, Retting picked three control cities miles away from Oxnard that were in no danger of getting splattered by "spillover effect." While a table in Retting's report shows crashes at all signalized intersections in Oxnard decreasing 5.4 percent, two of his non-camera-enforced control cities also saw crashes decline, with camera-free Santa Barbara decreasing by 10.2 percent. How does Retting explain this? He doesn't. Perhaps most duplicitously, he claims that during the time of the study, "no other comprehensive traffic safety programs," were implemented in Oxnard that could account for the reductions. Unless, you count California more than doubling its penalty for running red lights (which gave Retting sufficient cause to discontinue his first study).

But the bad news for Retting doesn't end there. Curious about some of Retting's crash conclusions, the National Motorists Association's Jim Kadison secured accident data for the red-light-camera intersections Retting used in his latest Oxnard report. Retting had estimated that the use of red-light cameras had resulted in a tiny 3 percent increase in rear-enders at all signalized intersections. But after expanding the definition of an intersection to include 100 feet into the approaches, where rear-end accidents would logically occur, Kadison found that during the time of Retting's study, rear-end crashes at red-light camera intersections increased from 18 (before installation) to 156, for a total rear-end accident increase of 767 percent.

When I called Retting to needle him about the inconsistencies in his studies, he grew peevish. "The studies speak for themselves. . . . You can look at it any way you like, I have nothing to apologize for." Somehow, he seemed to discount the criticism, since I was not at his "professional level" and had no grasp of logistic regression models. "If you don't have the ability to appreciate the logistic regression model," he condescended, "it's really a waste of time." Perhaps so. But I can appreciate Greg Mauz's assessment of Retting's reports: "Swiss cheese doesn't have as many holes."

Retting, to be sure, isn't the only fuzzy mathematician in the automated enforcement arena. Police departments, who are coached by their contractors to preach the safety gospel every chance they get, tend to advertise success by displaying the declines in violations, while failing to produce numbers that prove cameras reduce accidents. When I called the D.C. police for accident statistics, spokesman Kevin Morison said, "We don't have comprehensive data on accidents by intersection at this point." He then referred me to Lockheed Martin IMS, whose spokesman, Mark Maddox, proceeded to refer me back to the D.C. police. When I told him the police had referred me to him, he sniffed, "Obviously the numbers speak for themselves." Maybe they would, if we knew what they were, I said. "We're not in the accident monitoring business," Maddox explained. "We don't have that ability, no." Odd that a company whose raison d'etre is supposedly reducing accidents has no way of knowing if accidents are being reduced.

One police department that does put out specific numbers is Howard County, Maryland. Officers from this wealthy suburb of Baltimore are among the red-light camera's shiniest, happiest propagandists, generally depicted by journalists as running a model program. At a congressional hearing last summer, they were automated enforcement's star witnesses. Wearing their gold-braided dress blues and wielding their Power Point displays, they proceeded to declare their three-year-old red-light camera program an unqualified success, boasting a reduction in collisions of between 18 percent and 44 percent at every intersection where a camera had been installed.

The statistics were impressive. Still, confused as to the time periods being monitored, I called Lt. Glenn Hansen to ask for clarification. "You're right, it's confusing," said the media-friendly Hansen, who runs their program. "You're a writer, maybe you can give us advice on how to do better in the future." It turns out Hansen had no idea what the time periods were either, except that the times measured before and after installation of the camera were equal. But when I obtained accident statistics for all the county-road intersections where cameras had been placed, the numbers didn't square with the ones presented at the congressional hearing.

The cameras were installed in 1998. Between the years 1997 and 2000, accidents increased at 5 of 13 intersections for which Howard County's Department of Public Works provided statistics. Rear-end accidents increased at 7; they more than doubled at 4, tripled at one, and quintupled at one. All told, the red-light-camera intersections reported a 21 percent increase in rear-end accidents, while total accidents increased 15.9 percent. Figures for all other county intersections also show an increase in accidents, but a smaller one (a 13.4 increase in total accidents and an 8.5 percent increase in rear-end accidents).

Tune in Friday for the Part 5 Finale: Fighting the Good Fight

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

Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.