Photo Radar – When Will We Get It?

Q: When can I expect freeway flyers to get costly fines in the mail from traffic cameras recording speed and license plate numbers?

A: To put this question in context, it was asked after describing a series of high-risk speeding situations that the question-asker has encountered repeatedly on his daily commute. To put it in historical context, Bellingham has experienced some controversy over traffic camera enforcement that makes this question a bit of a volatile topic. But I’m answering it anyway.

Have you ever been in a city that uses red light cameras, watched a driver run a red light, saw the flash of the camera, and thought smugly, “Ha, they’re going to get what they deserve.” Another question: Have you ever been in a city that uses red light cameras, accidentally ran a red light, saw the flash of the camera and thought, “That’s so unfair. If I could just explain the situation to a real officer instead of this dumb camera, I’m sure he’d understand.”

In previous articles I’ve mentioned that as drivers we tend to overestimate our driving skill. According to a 100 page report on driving risk (I only read the executive summary) we also underestimate the risk of dangerous driving behaviors like speeding or running red lights. Plus, no one likes to get a ticket, even if well-deserved. These factors, and a few others we’ll get to, tend to cause most drivers to recoil from the idea of photo enforcement.

But does it work? There are a lot of studies out there on automated traffic enforcement, some of which were not conducted to scientifically rigorous standards and result in misleading outcomes. If we ignore the studies that were done by groups with a vested interest in the results (camera enforcement companies on one side, and conspiracy theorists on the other) we’re still left with some useful results from research universities and public health scientists. A lot of the most reliable research isn’t in the US. Europe and Australia have been early adopters of automated enforcement, and thus have a larger set of data to analyze.

The effectiveness of automated enforcement depends on how you measure it. If your measurement of success is a reduction in crashes, success is sometimes marginal. If you measure success by a reduction in deaths and serious injuries, then yes, photo enforcement works great. We’ll look at both speed and red light enforcement to understand why.

When speed cameras are deployed, the average speed of vehicles decreases. I don’t think anyone is surprised by that. Usually the number of crashes decreases as well, also not surprising. The important detail is the reduction in serious crashes. A study from Australia found that crashes were reduced by 38% while fatalities declined by 87%. Even if the crash rate drops minimally or stays nearly flat, the fatality rates drop because a key factor to survivability of a crash is speed at impact.

Red light cameras, in some studies, have virtually no impact on the total number of crashes in an intersection. However, red light enforcement reduces right-angle crashes (caused by people running red lights) while sometimes increasing rear-impact crashes (caused by people slamming on their brakes to avoid a red light ticket). A Federal Highway Safety study shows that right-angle crashes, while occurring less frequently, are responsible for 47% of deaths in intersection crashes, while rear-end crashes only make up 6% of fatal crashes. Overall, serious crashes drop when red light cameras go live.

This is the kind of trade that we’ve made with round-abouts. Round-abouts don’t usually reduce crashes (in some cases crashes go up a little), but the reduction in fatal crashes is as high as 90%. I’ll willingly share my bias. As unpleasant as a non-injury crash is, I will gladly trade an increase in property-damage-only crashes for a reduction in serious injuries and fatalities.

Often the objections to automated enforcement are not about its effectiveness when used properly, but in the great potential for misuse. When cities start incorporating revenue from automated traffic enforcement into their annual budget for general operations it starts looking like photo enforcement is more about money than safety. It can also appear, with a good chunk of the traffic ticket going to a private, often out-of-state company, that photo enforcement benefits a business more than the local community.

I still haven’t answered the original question. I don’t see automated speed enforcement happening any time soon (except in school zones), and here’s why: Washington State Law has put some significant limits on automated speed enforcement. Currently our law limits automated enforcement to red light cameras, cameras at railroad crossings and speed cameras in school zones.

There is one exception. Here’s how it’s worded in the law: “Any city west of the Cascade mountains with a population of more than one hundred ninety-five thousand located in a county with a population of fewer than one million five hundred thousand may operate an automated traffic safety camera to detect speed violations . . .” They could have just written “Tacoma” because that’s the only city in the state that meets those requirements. And even then, it’s limited to one camera for a pilot project.

Depending on your view of automated enforcement, you’ll either be pleased or disappointed to find out that speed cameras are not coming to a road near you any time soon.


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