Traffic Safety Group Counters Red Light Cam Propaganda With Brutal Truth

You’ve probably heard some variant of the saying “If slaughterhouses had windows, there would be a lot more vegetarians.” Well, if this video from the Traffic Safety Coalition were aired at every debate over red light cameras, there would be a hell of a lot more red light cameras. Brace yourself before you hit play. There are some graphic moments.

The uninformed, misleading blather from the talking heads, car lobbyists, anti-government conspiracy theorists and self-entitled drivers, all professing distrust and contempt for automated traffic enforcement, is rendered moot by jarring footage of real-life collisions. Interspersed are slides citing national and local data showing that red light collisions kill — 676 dead and 113,000 injured in 2009 alone — and red light cams save lives.

The coalition has a multi-faceted membership representing traffic safety, law enforcement, health care, victim’s advocacy, government and industry sectors, with a goal of improving safety for all street users nationwide.

With a speed camera bill coming up in Albany this session, the following may be of particular interest to New York residents: The coalition reports that speeds in Portland, Oregon dropped by an average of 5 mph in photo-enforced school zones.

  • The clip with the balloon, that’s pretty powerful.

  • Emily Litella

    Agreed, you know many of the other examples shown are so blatant that they were probably due to otherwise safe drivers being fatigued to the point of being asleep. What appears to have happened in the case of the girl with balloon is that the driver, with right signal on, must have been in the habit of stopping past the crosswalk to wait for an opportunity to make a fast right on red. Law enforcement can not catch these scofflaws before its too late, making the cameras an essential law enforcement tool.

  • vnm

    Great video and great write-up, Brad.

  • bbb

    yeah that balloon one was tough.

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    This is the second, amazingly-edited, effective video I have seen in the transportation field in the past two days.

    Wow.

  • Wasn’t the footage taken with cameras … at red lights?

  • Joe R.

    Have there been any studies of the accident rates at signaled versus uncontrolled intersections? Based on my ( admittedly anecdotal ) observations, it seems collisions occur at signaled intersections at 10 times the rate they do at unsignaled ones. Red light cameras may reduce accident rates at signaled intersections, but it’s the whole concept of “guaranteed” right-of-way, thanks to traffic lights, which causes those accidents in the first place. Few motorists slow down and look when they have the green. If not for the string of greens, motorists might be cruising along a much safer 20 mph ( where they could easily look for and avoid collisions at intersections ) versus 45 mph. We want liveable streets, forget the red light cams. Just ditch the traffic lights. They are the sole reason why cyclists/pedestrians must dodge cars traveling at 50 mph. Without lights, it would be suicidal for anyone to go over 20 mph.

  • Zulu

    Joe R. that’s very true! Uncontrolled intersections and/or traffic circles (w/ out lights) reduce the speed at which vehicles travel and have proven to reduce accidents more so than any other traffic controlling device. Uncontrolled intersections transfer the sense of responsibility back to the vehicle operator and makes him responsible for his/her own safety. They are also surprisingly effective at reducing congestion and promoting a natural flow to traffic.

    Although instituting them at first would be more expensive than installing a red light camera they would pay for themselve in a matter of time. The cost of traffic signals, maintenance, property damage, and bodily injury would all be virtually eliminated by the use of traffic circles or uncontrolled intersections. Not being a traffic engineer I’m not sure how they would apply to NYC but it would be worth the effort to investigate further.

  • Bob

    What a joke. That video showed red light cameras photograph accidents, they didn’t stop them. Showing video of people stopping at the lights would be a compelling argument.

    It’s only propaganda when it comes from the people who profit from the system. That’s exactly what the “Traffic Safety Coalition” is — a dishonest front group paid for by the traffic camera manufacturers.

  • Justine

    This video is designed to give the impression that the cameras will only be used for the purposes of preventing the types of accidents that are viewed in the presentation. But this is a misleading sales pitch to the general public. The fact is the majority of these types of citations are issued for rolling right turns. And in some instances the speed thresholds are set as low as 4-5 mph. Rolling rights account for 80% of the citations issued in some jurisdictions. Sentiments towards the cameras change when citizens realize that they have been hoodwinked. If the rolling rights were to be excluded, the cameras would have plenty of support. But as of now, citizens know better than to trust certain entities with the cameras.

  • Umm, Bob? If drivers knew they were getting a ticket every time they blew through a red light, don’t you think they would do it less, with the happy consequence being that there would be fewer accidents like those shown in the video?

  • Mike

    Right turn on red is nearly always illegal in NYC. Sounds like a great way to catch red light runners, turning or not.

  • Bottom line, there should be red light cameras on every single light in New York, with strict enforcement for people who endanger the public’s safety by running lights: stiff fines, and vehicle confiscation for those who do not promptly pay. (I would go so far as to say imprisonment of drivers who do not pay).

  • Bob, from the looks of the footage these aren’t red light or speed cameras. They are surveillance cameras, like what you might see in a traffic control room common in most cities. They are not cameras used to record license plates or catch and fine speeding drivers, but rather cameras that monitor traffic conditions.

    Ironically, you rarely hear the big brother crowd complaining about these types of cameras since they are designed to help keep traffic moving. The only cameras they don’t like are the ones that would actually ticket them for doing something illegal.

  • BlueDog

    I do not oppose red light enforcement, but I see at least one problem with this production. The crash footage, while unpleasant, could be similarly composed to advocate for bans on [insert driving distraction here], lower speed limits, more roundabouts… you might even think multi-lane roads are the problem.

    Better footage (as in, more likely to represent a driver actively choosing not to stop) would show drivers continuing through the intersection, trailing a flow of cars, and interfering with oncoming left-hand turns (those needing to clear the intersection).

  • Stan

    We also need speed cameras on every block. Force people to drive the speed limit and respect lights, or else go bankrupt from fines. This will go a long way towards making safer streets.

  • J:Lai

    Joe R and Zulu,

    removing traffic signals forces drivers to slow down because they are uncertain about what they will encounter at an intersection. That is, it makes drving much less efficient because it takes away the predictability the signalled intersections provide.
    If your goal is simply to reduce vehicle speeds, this will work, but at a fairly large cost in driving efficiency.
    In reality, you need to balance the costs and benefits for all road users, including drivers.

    While there are some intersections where traffic signals are unnecessary, the majority contribute to efficient vehicle flow. Enforcement thus becomes necessary, which brings us back to cameras/automated enforcement. I believe that timing of the lights and physical street design are more effective than enforcement in regulating speed, but enforcement is needed to prevent actual red-light running.

  • Joe R.

    @J:Lai,

    It’s very true that eliminating signals will impact driving efficiency, but let’s consider two things. First off, motorists can always do a good portion of their trip on highways if local roads are too slow. In fact, this is desireable from a safety standpoint, as it segregates motorists from other road users to the maximum extent possible.

    Second, and MUCH more important, you’re ignoring the HUGE time penalty traffic lights cause other road users ( cyclists/pedestrians ) to incur. A road with signals timed for car speeds may well cause cyclists to face a red light every three or four blocks. This could well reduce their average speed from perhaps 20 mph ( if they were to run unimpeded ) to walking speed. This is a far larger time penalty in terms of percentage than the motorist would face if forced to travel at ~20 mph on a road without traffic lights. And pedestrians could face rather large time penalties also. When you look at all these factors, yes, an unsignaled road might reduce average driving speeds from perhaps 25 mph to maybe 15 or 18 mph, but this is still acceptable given the short distances many motorists go when traveling locally. Few motorists will do a ten or twenty mile trip entirely on local roads. It might be 3 miles local driving, 17 miles on the highway. The 3 miles locally might take a whopping 3 or 4 minutes longer. This is fine given that unsignaled streets allow bikes/peds to operate pretty much optimally.

  • Ian Turner

    David: We abolished debtor’s prisons in 1833.

  • Justine, are you suggesting that rolling right turns are SAFE?

    Did you miss the whole balloon scene? That’s exactly what happened. The driver was clearly looking left and missed the person standing directly in front of them.

    With a camera enforcing a FULL STOP that never would have happened.

  • Zulu

    J:Lai,

    Check this site: http://www.roundaboutsusa.com/12.html
    Roundabouts have proven to reduce congestion, cut operating costs and increase safety to ALL that enter the roundabout not just pedestrians and cyclists. Unfortunately it might be impossible to implement such a traffic controlling device in NYC due to the physical space they take. But perhaps their may be a version of it adaptable to city streets.

  • Justine

    Jass:
    I never said that those who roll thru rights never cause an accident. But the fact remains that they seldom pose any significant hazard that would justify the manner in which they are commonly used. From the east coast to the west coast citizens have questioned the use of cameras for rolling rights. But not one agency has produced any data that would suggest that rolling rights are a real problem. Not one. And because of the heavy criticism regarding the turns, I would think substantial data would have been presented and publicized by now if a real problem existed. And I guarantee that the balloon scene is an extremely rare piece of footage because it seems to be the only one advocates can find.

  • Master George

    Given that the cities pay for the cameras, the question still hasn’t been answered to whom is governing the cameras, as a whole. Understand that every city and state has various governs/laws when it comes to a moving voilation. But what about the universal aspect that needs to make red light cameras accountable , just like a stop sign is nationally?

  • Justine

    Master George:
    You bring up a good point. California has become the wild, wild, west. Even thought laws appear to be strict there is very little adherence and no oversight of camera companies. As Cities are supposed to be in control, camera companies have run amuck. California is plagued with kangaroo courts that have no standards and the only justice seems to be in the higher courts of appeal. Class action lawsuits are just a matter of time in California.

  • HenryH

    Aside from $$$, here’s 2 reasons politicians OK the cameras:

    1. They think we like the cameras!
    There’s Astroturf Lobbying by the camera Industry. (Google Rynski and Astroturf.) In addition to churning out “studies” favoring the cameras, their PR firms have employees whose job it is to manufacture a fake grassroots movement via comments they post on news articles like this one. The politicians read the web, assume the pro-cam comments represent genuine public support, so they vote to install cameras.

    2. Politicians – and their extended family – are immune to the tickets.
    It was revealed that in California 5% of all privately-owned cars (one car in twenty) have plates protected from easy look up, effectively invisible to agencies trying to process camera violations. The “protected” list includes politicians, bureaucrats, their families, and ADULT children! Unbelievable? Read Cal Veh Code 1808.4. If you think this is unfair and don’t want it to be that way in your state, call your state legislators and insist that any legislation remove the loopholes for govt. employees.

  • Is J:Lai going native? That kind of efficiency is not worth human life and suffering.

    “Rolling rights” not only injured a child in my neighborhood, but they also contribute to a climate of fear and uncertainty among pedestrians. That said, neckdowns (a.k.a. sidewalk extensions) may well be more effective than cameras at preventing them.

  • clever-title

    Is there any difference between Justine’s “rolling right” argument and those who are complaining that cyclists shouldn’t be cited for running red lights b/c they pose only a small risk to other road users?

  • Yes, a difference of about 1800 pounds, give or take a few thousand.

  • RogerJ

    The “snuff” videos displayed were taken from red light cameras it appears. The cameras did not ‘prevent’ these accidents. The typical T-bone accident occurs when a motorist does not see the red light at all…it has been red for 5 or more seconds. It is not an issue of “beating the light,” at all. I am assuming none of the violators was trying to commit suicide.

  • clever-title

    Cap’n – I didn’t know arguments had weight that could be expressed in pounds.

    Having been struck by both as a pedestrian, I can’t say that getting hit by a red-light running cyclist at 10-15 is somehow better than being hit by a car at 5mph. A cyclist going against the light who knocked me to the pavement in a crosswalk was just as dangerous to me as a right-turning motorist who ran over my foot.

  • Ian Turner

    ant6n, bob, and Roger J: As Doug G. pointed out above, this footage does not appear to be from red-light cameras, but rather other surveillance or security cameras. Oddly, the proliferation of that much more intrusive technology, which films 24×7 rather than only when a crime is being committed, has generated little to no outrage.

    clever-title: Your anecdotal experiences aside, science does have something to say here. I’m not sure why you would compare a 15 MPH cyclist collision with a 5 MPH car collision, but even using your double standard, the cyclist has about half the kinetic energy of a Nissan Altima. If both are traveling at 15 MPH, then the car has over 17X the kinetic energy. And, all else equal, the severity of a crash is directly related to the amount of kinetic energy dissipated. If you disagree with this analysis, you’re going to need to support your argument using more than anecdotes.

    Master George: Every government in the united states, which naturally includes state and local governments, is accountable to the constitution. Thus anyone who gets a ticket does have the right to challenge it in court, where the evidence is weighed by humans, with all the perfection and reasonableness (or lack thereof) that implies. If this is not an adequate control to satisfy you, what would be? How is this any different from controls on other kinds of government behavior, such as tax levies?

    Henry H.: Are you saying that the demonstrated effectiveness of cameras in reducing speeding, red-light running, and death is not a factor in their deployment?

  • Ian Turner

    Actually, it seems I need to backtrack on the first paragraph of the previous comment. According to Snopes, at least the first crash of the video was indeed captured by a red-light camera.

  • jon

    Sure, we don’t need red light cameras to get people to stop, we need retractable bollards that rise out of the street when the light is red. Those will really make people stop.

    When Bollards Attack!

  • clever-title

    @Ian – I’m not disagreeing that a car can do more damage to a human than a bike, nor that punishment should be proportional to the damage done. What I disagree with is the notion that the dangers presented by red-light running cyclists is acceptable, so we should not be ticketed.

    If red light cameras to increase enforcement are a good idea because they could prevent several hundred deaths, why isn’t it a good idea to ticket red-light running cyclists if it saves even one life? If not, at how many deaths or injuries do we reach the threshhold for enforcement?

  • Ian Turner

    clever-title: At engineering school, I was taught that in the context of industrial design, the rule of thumb is that one should be willing to spend about $6,000,000 to prevent a death. But our society is notoriously inconsistent about the monetary value of life: this book covers the topic in detail, but for example worker’s compensation typically pays a few hundred thousand dollars for a death, while medical insurance may have no limit at all. And, of course, one can save a life for about $550 by carefully giving to international aid charities.

    Personally, I think that except in narrowly-defined circumstances, the $6 million figure is a good upper bound on the value of human life in engineering contexts. Obviously this is a question of personal opinion. Applying that to the present question, we should allow red-light running if the productivity gains per extra death exceed $6 million. This analysis is the same for cars as it is for bicycles, though I’m fairly confident that the productivity gain per extra death is much higher for bicycles because they are so much less likely to cause death, and because encouraging cycling will itself reduce automobile use and cycling injuries, perhaps even avoiding net deaths rather than causing them.

    You also have to consider the range of injuries available, besides death. The DALY (disability-adjusted life year) is a stab at this. It has its own problems, but represents the best objective attempt to date to relate different kinds of illness, injury, and death. If you accept the use of DALYs here (this issue is not clear to me), then you could talk about productivity gain per DALY lost. You probably need to adjust for the possibility of property damage as well; again this analysis is more favorable to bicycles than to automobiles.

    Hope that helps. Cheers,

    –Ian

  • Joe R.

    @clever-title,

    Statistically speaking, at some point you simply can’t prevent deaths via laws or enforcement. When something is the cause of on average one death per year, which is the case with bicycles in NYC, statistically that’s comparable to lightning strikes or falling tree limbs. Nobody would be suggesting laws prohibiting people in parks during thunderstorms, complete with police giving tickets, to prevent that one death a year. Same with deaths caused by bikes. Statistically, they’re a fluke. Maybe the person who is hit falls the wrong way, whereas 9999 others in a similar collision will come out of it with superficial injuries. Ticketing cyclists running red lights is more a feel good measure than one likely to result in any significant improvement in public safety. Remember a red-light running cyclist has a personal stake in not hitting anyone as they usually come out of it worse than whoever they hit. Given the sheer numbers of cyclists who take “liberties” at red lights, the death/injury rate is astonishingly low. It could be even better if the practice were destigmatized ( i.e. made legal via an Idaho-stop type law ), and cycling advocacy organizations offered training on how to safely pass reds, as well as when you shouldn’t do so. Right now, since the practice is illegal, no cycling organization will touch the idea of training cyclists to pass reds. End result, some learn to do it very well through trial and error, others are sloppy, with the end result that people like yourself get hit.

    Bottom line, we can’t and shouldn’t try to “legislate” perfect safety. We can’t because laws can’t account for every situation. More importantly, the more “safety” laws you have, the more restrictive the society. We’re now at the point of punishing people for doing things which statistically are usually safe, but once in a while cause a problem. That shouldn’t be. If something occasionally causes issues, then focus on training people to do it safely. Don’t make it illegal for everyone. That’s like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  • clever-title

    “More importantly, the more “safety” laws you have, the more restrictive the society. We’re now at the point of punishing people for doing things which statistically are usually safe, but once in a while cause a problem. That shouldn’t be. If something occasionally causes issues, then focus on training people to do it safely. Don’t make it illegal for everyone. That’s like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
    Those points are very similar to those used by motorists who oppose automated enforcement. Millions of motorists run reds or make right turns on red and harm no one. Rather then a zero-tolerance policy enforced by cameras that punish those who harm no one, why not go after those who actually harm others with stronger penalties?

  • Joe R.

    “Those points are very similar to those used by motorists who oppose automated enforcement. Millions of motorists run reds or make right turns on red and harm no one. Rather then a zero-tolerance policy enforced by cameras that punish those who harm no one, why not go after those who actually harm others with stronger penalties?”

    That’s my point. Have very severe penalities only when there is actual harm, no penalties otherwise. And also have much better driver training. So-called accidents don’t occur because of some imaginary vaccum in enforcement. No, they occur because many ( most? ) motorists are incompetent. They’re incompetent because they’re not trained properly. They’re not going to become better trained by giving them a gazillion tickets. Let’s stop trying to solve a lack of training problem with yet more laws and punishment. Sure, politicians love doing this because it’s a ready revenue source. Look at all the money some localities get from speeding tickets, for example. But in the end this solves nothing. Dangerous drivers are rarely punished in those zero tolerance enforcement campaigns. Same with cyclists. Western societies need to grow up, realize what older societies did centuries ago. Society can at best react to people’s tendencies, not reshape them. A smart society will help people do better, with less harm, what they’re going to do anyway. A stupid one will keep batting them over the head with police actions, magically hoping to curtail something it deems undesireable for whatever reason. That hasn’t yet worked in the history of humanity. It’s not going to any time soon.

    You’re not going to stop drivers from passing red lights 100% of the time. Sometimes a light is missed purely through human error. The threat of punishment can’t help you there because the violation was unintentional. Rather, set things up so intersections aren’t passed at such high speeds that collisions from these mistakes are deadly. Traffic lights allow the high speeds which are so dangerous by creating an atmosphere where the driver feels comfortable speeding with a string of greens. Getting rid of them forces drivers to be attentive, slow down, at every single intersection. You’ll still of course have collisions because humans make mistakes. At least the consequences of those collisions will be lessened if a motorist is only going 20 mph instead of 50 mph.

  • Ian Turner

    Joe, clever-title: The reason to go after dangerous behavior, rather than simply punishing people who actually cause damage, is that people are not rational. Drivers consistently overestimate their own driving ability and underestimate the danger caused by their behavior. Some 98% of drivers think they are above average. This is why people speed, talk on their cell phones while driving, or run red lights: Despite the very clear evidence that these behaviors are dangerous, they think they are skilled enough to do so without getting into a crash. Everyone thinks they are an exception to the rule.

    In this cognitive environment, people make dangerous decisions because everyone figures that it will be “someone else” who will actually cause accidents. In response, you have to provide some objective clue to drivers when they engage in dangerous behavior; citations are, in my opinion, the best way of doing this.

  • clever-title

    @Ian-That’s what has made me start rethinking my support of “Idaho stops.” I have (like most cyclists, I’d guess) have had a few experiences in their life when I’ve done something that looked safe at first, but turned out to be less so, either due to misjudging behaviour or not noticing other vehicles. Thankfully, there have been no collisions, but I am less cavalier on the roads than I once was.
    Will Idaho stops lead to accidents due to cyclists overestimating their abilities or not noticing pedestrians? I don’t know, but it is becoming diffcult for me to support red light cameras while supporting traffic rules that give more leeway to cyclists to make judgement calls.

  • Ian Turner

    clever-title: Agreed. The way to evaluate the Idaho stop is with science, but in my opinion less regulation is generally the way to go unless you have evidence to the contrary. I have written a rather lengthy post about this, but it awaits moderation, so you’ll have to wait until Monday to see it.

  • Joe R.

    @clever-title,

    It’s not necessarily contradictory to support red light cameras and Idaho stops at the same time. Let’s think about this for a moment. The only reason traffic lights exist is to allow cars to proceed at much higher speeds than they could if they had to operate visually at intersections. In essence, traffic lights are the equivalent of instrument flight rules for aircraft. On the flip side, bicycles do in fact operate at speeds where “visual flight rules” apply. Bicycles have greater visibility than cars. Because of their slower speeds, they can stop much faster. Even traveling at a high ( for a cyclist ) speed of 20 mph, you can stop in under two car lengths. At two car lengths from an intersection, a cyclist can often see what’s coming a full block ( ~250 feet ) away. Even if a car was traveling at 80 mph, they would be able to see it and stop in time to avoid it. And they can see pedestrians crossing even better, with more leeway to avoid hitting them, by virtue of the pedestrian’s much lower speeds. These are all reasons why supporting different rules for cyclists and autos makes sense once you analyze it scientifically.

    Now let’s say you want to factor in what Ian said about drivers ( and cyclists ) overestimating their own abilities. Fine, but even here it’s 100 times more likely an overconfident cyclist will fail to notice an auto, not a pedestrian, when passing a red light by virtue of the auto’s much higher speed. And the cyclist will be the only one hurt or killed when this happens due to the laws of physics. On the other hand, an auto running a red light can kill or injure many people. In fact, it is highly likely to do so by virtue of its larger size/greater speed, plus the fact that a motorist really can’t see what’s coming unless they slow to a crawl or stop ( i.e. I might be inclined to not ticket motorists who treat reds as stop signs, proceeding only after they stop to determine if it’s clear ). Protecting people from harming others is what the law should do if possible. Protecting people from themselves isn’t. And a cyclist with poor skills at passing red lights will nearly almost always hurt only themselves. That doesn’t mean I’m not in favor of ticketing cyclists for running lights *sometimes*. The sometimes is when they pass a red when the crosswalk is full of pedestrians. Clearly this is behavoir likely to injure both the cyclist and someone else. It deserves a summons. It’s illegal even under the Idaho stop law.

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