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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.