Friday, November 06, 2009

The Scourge of Traffic Cameras

Correction to This Article
A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed a study of Montgomery County's speed cameras to the Maryland state legislature. The study was carried out by a Montgomery County agency.

Shudder speed

Rise of the stealthy traffic camera fuels drivers' disgust

All around the nation speed cameras are being put up in an attempt to protect public safety by discouraging speeding. But the public doesn't see it that way. People see these cameras as another inconvenience to their commutes and another source of revenue for cities.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009

You rip open the envelope and there it is: Another darned photo-enforcement traffic ticket.

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The photograph, the zoom-in on the tag, it's you, baby. Your car. Two weeks ago. Forty-one in a 30-mph zone.

It's from your favorite municipality. You can pay $40 now or $80 later. You can also contest it, the infraction letter says, and that's a laugh. You remember seeing that the folks who went down to fight their automated tickets in Montgomery County got convicted 99.7 percent of the time. Like a Soviet election, you think, a sham, a joke, and you, the chump in the parade.

There's something that doesn't smell right about these tickets, but you're not quite sure what.

Is it the huge profits the government and their cohorts, the camera manufacturers, make on them? The District doubling the number of tickets it issued just two years ago, raking in $36 million last fiscal year? The fact that Redflex, one of the big manufacturers of these cameras, posted a 48 percent jump in revenue last year while the rest of the economy tanked?

People get worked up. Put these cyborgs on a ballot, and the voters beat them to the pavement.

Three cities Tuesday -- two in Ohio, one in Texas -- voted to rip the things down. In College Station, Tex., the camera manufacturer and their subcontractors reportedly spent $60,000 campaigning to keep them in place, more than five times the amount raised by the opposition, and lost anyway. Voters in Chillicothe, Ohio, went against the cameras at a rate of 72 percent. In Heath, Ohio, the mayor got caught removing anti-camera campaign signs from an intersection. He, and the cameras, got sent packing.

"I'm ecstatic," Jim Ash, the guy in College Station who led the anti-camera campaign.

Nationwide, there have been something like 11 elections on automated enforcement. Your vote total: Revolting Peasants 11, Machines 0.

Yet the cameras multiply like something out of science fiction, like that robot Mr. Smith in a sequel to "The Matrix," like the red weed in "War of the Worlds."

A handful of cities used them a decade ago. Now they're in more than 400, spread across two dozen states. Montgomery County started out with 18 cameras in 2007. Now it has 119. Maryland just took the program statewide last month, and Prince George's is putting up 50. The District started out with a few red light cameras in 1999; now they send out as many automated tickets each year as they have residents, about 580,000.

"They make too much money for cities to just stop using them," says Joe Scott, a D.C. entrepreneur who has developed Phantomalert, a downloadable software for GPS units and an app for smart phones that is updated by subscribers who spot new cameras sprouting up. He started it a few years ago by logging in a couple of hundred cameras in the D.C. region. Subscribers have since uploaded 200,000 more. It's like "Terminator," humans against machines.

But wait a minute. Maybe the cameras are a good thing. Cars can be deadly. It's not a joke.

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Something like 37,000 poor souls killed in traffic accidents last year. Year in and year out, studies show speed is a factor in about a third of all traffic deaths, and road accidents are the leading cause of death for people ages 4 to 34, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"We have the need to effect a change in motorist behavior," says Tom Brahms, executive director of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, and a champion of automated enforcement. "We mostly don't look at the car we drive as something that can create fatal impact. Reducing speed is one of the aspects that can lower that."

"The one thing we know, you put a camera in the ground and the violations drop," says Mark Talbot, an executive vice president at Affiliated Computer Services, which supplies the cameras to about 60 jurisdictions across the country, including the District and Montgomery County. "That can't help but have some positive effect on safety."

Who could argue with that?

An accelerating backlash

Turns out a lot of people do.

Ash, the College Station activist, started his campaign because he said they were a violation of due process, that there was no appeal beyond a municipal hearing. Red-light or speed cameras or both are banned in all or part of 14 states. The Republican governor of Mississippi kicked them out of the Magnolia State earlier this year. The Democratic governor of Montana did the same in July. Sulphur, La., put the issue to a vote in April -- and 86 percent of the populace voted to get rid of them.

In 2005, then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) vetoed the Maryland bill that eventually authorized cameras in Montgomery County, because, he said, it was a blatant "revenue-raising measure" that designated four- and six-lane highways to be "residential neighborhoods" and allowed a jurisdiction to "charge, try and convict an individual solely through the use of a photograph." (See above: conviction rate, 99.7 percent.)

The veto was overridden.

In Arizona, the home of the photo-enforcement industry, the director of a grass-roots effort to ban the cameras says he's having no problems collecting the 153,655 signatures needed to put the issue to a statewide ballot next year.

"We only need a simple majority, and, let me tell you right now, the cameras are coming down," says Shawn Dow, a small-business owner and chairman of Arizona Citizens Against Photo Radar.

Man, in Arizona, people are hot.

The sheriff of Pinal County, Paul Babeu, took office in January and got rid of all the speed cameras the next day. Says they don't cut down on accidents, that they tie fundraising to law enforcement and that they render people "guilty until proven innocent."

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"It's tilted our whole system of what we believe in. It's an affront to our citizens and to many of us who serve in law enforcement," he says.

One guy who lives outside of Phoenix, Dave Vontesmar, hated the cameras so much he put on a monkey mask to drive to work every day, to keep the front-facing cameras from identifying him. Racked up 37 tickets that could amount to $6,500 in fines. Says the state can't prove it's him, which it has to do in his state. And, not funny at all, a technician was servicing a speed camera on Loop 101 in Phoenix back in April. An irate motorist shot him to death.

Overseas, people in Finland have destroyed them with explosives. Vandals in Britain attack them at the rate of 100 a year.

You have to wonder what provokes this level of outrage, when federal traffic agencies, police and road safety groups all agree the cameras reduce accidents and save lives.

Montgomery County published the "Evaluation of Montgomery County's Safe Speed Program," a hundred-page study in September, and it showed eye-popping results. Reported collisions in camera-monitored zones or intersections were down 28 percent. Those involving "injury or fatality" were down a whopping 39 percent. This corresponds to a series of national and international studies analyzed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which found that collisions dropped by about 20 percent in all speed-camera zones.

"There is no question that red-light cameras and speed cameras work to change behavior," writes Russ Rader, director of media relations at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in an e-mail. "But changing behavior means a lot of people who regularly break the law aren't happy."

The other set of stats

Not everyone sees it quite that way, though, and not everyone thinks the cameras are life-savers.

Traffic deaths and accidents have been falling across the nation for seven years in a row everywhere, not just in automated enforcement zones. Nationwide traffic deaths dropped 10 percent last year and are down 7 percent so far this year. The percentage of accidents is at an all-time low, with the drop in fatalities far exceeding the drop in vehicle miles traveled.

Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, said in news release earlier this year that the reasons for this drop were "record seat belt use, increased enforcement of drunk driving and seat belt laws, improvements in vehicle safety, safer roadways and the economy."

(She says in an interview that she strongly believes automated enforcement works, but that it isn't in wide enough use to have a national impact.)

Fairfax County, which got rid of its cameras several years ago, saw bigger reductions of fatal accidents than Montgomery County did with its cameras -- fatal traffic accidents were down in Fairfax by 19 percent in 2007 and another 46 percent in 2008. (The cameras have since been reinstalled at several intersections in Northern Virginia.)

Fatalities in Montgomery County's camera zones, meanwhile, inched up, from two to three. Pedestrians struck by cars went up, too, from a four-year average of 15 to 22 last year.)

This newspaper investigated red-light camera safety records in the District four years ago, had a panel of three traffic scholars review the numbers . . . and found that not only the number but the rate of accidents had increased, sometimes doubled, at intersections with red-light cameras. Virginia Tech did a study of Fairfax's red-light cameras before the jurisdiction got rid of them in 2005, studying four years of data. The thesis looked at red light intersections, intersections without cameras but a longer yellow light, and a control group with no cameras and not-so-long yellow lights. The finding was that there was "no statistical difference" in the number of crashes with red light cameras and the others.

In Britain, where the cameras are in widespread use, police say that the rate of serious injuries has fallen precipitously. In 2006, the British Medical Journal looked at hospital admissions from car accidents over the previous eight years. The authors reported that "Hospital statistics show that there has been no appreciable reduction in injuries."

"These cameras don't catch the wanton speeders, the killers we need to get off the road," says Lon Anderson, public and government affairs director for the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the American Automobile Association and a vocal critic of the cameras. "They just nab the guys going 11 miles per hour over the limit with $40 in their wallet."

And that Montgomery County study that touts the program as a success?

You have to look hard for the occasional information box, headed "Note on Interpreting the Data," that says the report's findings "coincided" with the implementation of the cameras. The authors state that "Factors other than speed cameras, such as weather conditions, roadway conditions, and traffic volumes," weren't considered. And that they "cannot assert that the program was the sole cause for these changes."

The pretense of virtue?

Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association, says his organization's 5,000 members resent the "hypocrisy" that cities or states use cameras in the name of safety, when the actual data suggest that they produce only (a) lots of profit and (b) a tap on the brakes when drivers are passing through the speed zone.

"There's a well-intentioned principle to get drivers to change their behavior, but there's overwhelming evidence that doesn't happen," he says. "As soon as the cameras are gone, people go right back to driving what they were before."

He also brings us back to the Man vs. Machine debate.

He says the cameras are hardly infallible, but that courts often treat them as if they are. For example, the Montgomery County report showed that the county, in screening the tickets to mail out, has had to kick out 23,266 "violations" from May 2007 to June 2009 because "No violation occurred/operator error." And 10,813 were tossed for reasons including "power interruption" and "equipment malfunction."

Once in court, though, it wasn't even close. Machines 3,098, Revolting Peasants 10.

So, you've got your $40 ticket in hand. You really want to tell all this to a judge?


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