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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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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.