There Is No Doubt That Automated Traffic Enforcement Saves Lives

The incidence of red light running has declined where NYC has installed enforcement cameras. The spike in 2008 was due to the addition of 50 new red light cams. Graphic: NYC Mayor's Office
The incidence of red light running has declined where NYC has installed enforcement cameras. The spike in 2008 was due to the addition of 50 new red light cams. Graphic: NYC Mayor’s Office

Taking up one of the contrarian slots in today’s “Room for Debate” segment about Vision Zero and pedestrian safety in NYC, Jennifer Lynch of The Electronic Frontier Foundation staked out the civil libertarian position against automated traffic enforcement. EFF does great legal and policy work in general, but Lynch is way off base here. At this point, there’s a mountain of evidence that traffic cameras save lives, and it’s highly irresponsible to suggest, as Lynch does, that we need more data before taking action.

The de Blasio administration is seeking permission from Albany to install speed and red light cameras as the city sees fit, while Lynch argues that “New York has not shown that adding cameras to city streets and mandating private vehicle monitoring will prevent pedestrian deaths.”

But research on the effect of speed cameras has been around for years. A 2010 review of 28 studies of automated speed enforcement found uniformly positive effects on motorist speed and fatality rates:

All 28 studies found a lower number of crashes in the speed camera areas after implementation of the program. In the vicinity of camera sites, the reductions ranged from 8% to 49% for all crashes, with reductions for most studies in the 14% to 25% range. For injury crashes the decrease ranged between 8% to 50% and for crashes resulting in fatalities or serious injuries the reductions were in the range of 11% to 44%. Effects over wider areas showed reductions for all crashes ranging from 9% to 35%, with most studies reporting reductions in the 11% to to 27% range. For crashes resulting in death or serious injury reductions ranged from 17% to 58%, with most studies reporting this result in the 30% to 40% reduction range. The studies of longer duration showed that these positive trends were either maintained or improved with time.

While the authors say more research is needed to isolate the size of the speed camera effect, they conclude that “the consistency of reported positive reductions in speed and crash results across all studies show that speed cameras are a worthwhile intervention for reducing the number of road traffic injuries and deaths.”

If NYC implemented speed cameras citywide and achieved a 30 percent reduction in traffic deaths and serious injuries — the low end of the typical range of improvement in these studies — nearly 100 lives would be saved and nearly 1,000 life-altering injuries would be prevented each year.

The civil liberties argument against speed cams is bound to surface again as the de Blasio administration pursues home rule from Albany. So it’s worth recalling that the city has been able to tailor its camera enforcement programs to win the blessing of the NYCLU. NYC’s bus lane cameras, for instance, have to point in a certain direction and cannot store images beyond a certain time limit.

There’s also the matter of selective enforcement, which cameras can eliminate. Speed cameras don’t profile the person behind the wheel. All speeding motorists get treated the same.

  • Harald

    I find it interesting to look at different nation’s perceptions on what is an invasion of privacy and what isn’t. For example, in Germany there are very strict limits on CCTV cameras in public and even in semi-private spaces (shops, workplaces, …). Yet red light and speed cameras are completely accepted.

    In the US, on the other hand, there is hardly any spot left that isn’t under camera surveillance, either by the state or private entities. Yet people freak out over the privacy implications of automated traffic enforcement cams.

  • John

    I think the trust factor is because the cameras clearly generate extra city revenue, but have conflicted or negagtive relationships to safety.

  • dporpentine

    That was a really embarrassing contribution from someone associated with EFF. I mean, the argument was basically “Because things with of doubtful value even to the investigations of crimes, let alone actual crimes, have been used to abuse civil liberties, then things that immediately punish manifest lawbreaking should not be used.”

  • JMitchell

    Red light cameras are a scam to make money. It’s silly politics. Statistics like the graph mentioned above can be read in thousand different ways. There is NOT a mountain of evidence that traffic cameras save live. Somebody is dreaming – I wonder what’s the agenda behind those dreams.

  • Sounds like you’re the one dreaming buddy. Everything I’ve read shows that serious collisions are reduced while minor collisions remain about the same, or slightly increase. (Slightly) more collisions and fewer deaths and maimings sounds like a pretty damn good deal to me. Since those statistics can be interpreted so many different ways, how about you explain one of them that argues against these points?

  • Max Power

    The privacy concerns raised by Lynch are valid. The city government has shown that it will engage in illegal surveillance when it has the chance, and abuse of traffic enforcement cameras is a question of when, not if.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    To defuse people like you, they really ought to take all fines collected from these cameras and rebate them to local residents.

  • dporpentine

    The city has shown that it will use police officers to engage in illegal surveillance.

    That’s why I think we shouldn’t have police officers.

  • qrt145

    Why would making lawbreakers pay for their offenses be a scam?

  • Bernard HP Gilroy

    You understand that “argument” is not “say what I believe even more emphatically”. This article explicitly links to a meta-study of 28 studies about the effect, which show a consistent reduction. You could point out flaws in the studies, if any. But it’s a bit facile to simply assert “there is NOT a mountain of evidence” when that mountain has been placed in front of you, and it’s a bit disingenuous to wave away the results by saying “Statistics can be read in a thousand different ways”. Because in fact that is not true.

  • Ian Turner

    BTW the city has put up hundreds of cameras that don’t issue tickets with barely a peep. Why are traffic enforcement cameras suddenly such a privacy issue?

  • BornAgainBicyclist

    It’s pretty easy not to get a red light ticket: don’t run red lights. That’s a scam exactly how?

  • valar84

    Exactly. Traffic cameras are much less worse than surveillance cameras: they have a limited field of view they are watching and so are almost useless except for finding out traffic violations.

    Also, I would point out that cameras are more and more used as a replacement for loops in the asphalt for the purpose of vehicle detection to help in traffic light actuation (varying times of phases). Some of these cameras can stream a feed to control centers, where it can be recorded. Yet, not one peep about them either.

    The issue of privacy is just a loincloth to hide the real reason people dislike these traffic cameras. It’s about car driver selfishness. Detection cameras are fine because they help make intersections more fluid and increase the speed of car drivers. Red light cameras are bad because they prevent car drivers from breaking the law to speed up their trips, so drivers have to slow down or pay the fine.

    Breaking traffic laws is not protected by privacy, it’s about how people use a public infrastructure. There is no article in the law that says “… but only if a cop is physically present and observes you breaking this law”.

    Some people actually seem to consider traffic laws as a game: “Step right up! Step right up! Try your luck at the game of ‘red light running’! Go through the intersection, but watch the light! If it turns red, you must make sure there is no big bad cop around before entering the intersection… if he catches you, you lose, otherwise, you win!”

  • Jeffrey Baker

    That’s why I stopped donating to EFF years ago. In addition to the things I thought they were promoting, like your rights while online, and online privacy, they also tend to get involved with whatever random libertarian pet issue comes along. It’s really disappointing.

  • valar84

    In general, red light traffic cameras tend to increase rear collisions as some people brake as soon as the yellow light appear while people who follow them might step on the gas. But rear collisions are the least severe of all collisions, meanwhile the most dangerous collisions like side collisions decrease.

    So even if the absolute number of accidents increase, the most severe accidents are down, the intersection is more secure for people, but not necessarily for cars.

  • stairbob

    The agenda is to save lives and reduce injuries.

    What’s your agenda?

  • Ari_FS

    Wow, I’ve rarely seen a comment taken apart so cleanly and effectively. JMitchell’s only response is silence.

  • Max Power

    EFF has been opposed to the entire network of surveillance cameras created in the “ring of steel” or whatever term the city uses for its monitoring of innocent people.
    That the EFF has been routinely shouted down with chants of “9/11 changed everything” doesn’t invalidate their concerns

  • Max Power

    So I suppose the next time a pol introduces mandatory bike registration and license plates so cyclists who violate traffic laws can be caught, Streetsblog will be on board?

  • valar84

    Because you need license plates to recognize cyclists from one another? Don’t be absurd. License plates are needed to recognize vehicles because it’s hard to identify the drivers. If bikes had license plates, it would be harder to see the license plate than the cyclist.

  • dporpentine

    Hmmmm . . . hadn’t noticed that. Will have to look at them again.

  • Andrew

    All of the traffic cameras are on public streets. There is no expectation of privacy on a public street. Sorry.

  • Aunt Bike

    The fact that one has no right or reasonable expectation of privacy in public makes Lynch’s concern a non starter.

    You’re upset about that so you’re trying to change the topic to licencing bicyclists. There would be no privacy issue there, either. I think the reason most people are against it is because they feel it would be useless. Quite likely that that’s why there are hardly any cities that licence cyclists.

  • Aunt Bike

    If you’re going to claim that enforcement cameras ” are a scam to make money” please prove it.

    Just show us the cost of, say, New York City’s red light enforcement program, and compare it to the revenue brought in. That’s how you prove something is operating at a profit.

    We’ll wait for you to crunch the numbers.

  • Aunt Bike

    John, I think it’s true that people don’t trust cameras, and I’m sure the mistrust is fed by such stories, but I don’t think we’ve seen problems like in Jersey here in NYC. I’m aware of at least one county and a few towns in Jersey had that had problems either with their vendors, the reliability of their cameras, or deliberately “short timed” yellow light durations. That last one, it’s been found, can increase rear end collisions and increase ticket revenues.

    I often hear anti camera types point to all kinds of problems with camera enforcement programs all over the country, but the only one I’m aware of in NYC is the AAA “study” that NYC DOT says was not based on fact.

    valar84 confirms much of what I’ve read about red light cameras, in that with properly timed yellow lights rear end collisions (which I believe are caused primarily by drivers who go too fast, follow too close, and/or don’t pay attention) might rise slightly, but the more deadly side impact (T-bone) collisions are greatly lessened.

  • Aunt Bike

    Nobody who makes the claim that cameras only function is to make money has the facts to support it.

    It’s a canard circulated by clever anti enforcement types and repeated by not so clever anti enforcement types.

  • Gary Biller

    Here is a story for you published today in your neck of the woods!


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