Making creative use of scientific reports to promote a political or commercial agenda is nothing new. The famous hockey-stick graph found in the United Nations report on global warming turned out to be based on manipulated data, as exposed in the Climategate e-mails. Just last month, the British Medical Journal published "How the vaccine crisis was meant to make money," a report ripping apart the supposedly definitive 1998 study linking autism to vaccine use.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) claims in its Feb. 1 study that red-light cameras have saved hundreds of lives. The industry's backers, as seen in a nearby letter, call this "the most in-depth analysis to date" and its conclusions "undeniable." Yet the IIHS work hardly lives up to the hyperbole and should be compared to the effort the Virginia Transportation Research Council (VTRC) put into a 2007 report on cameras in the commonwealth.
The VTRC took into consideration every possible relevant factor, including the traffic volume at each intersection, the number and configuration of the lanes, signal timing and the amount of heavy-truck traffic. In all, 78 variables were considered in an effort to isolate the effect that cameras, and cameras alone, had on accidents. The result was that the overall number of smash-ups increased by 29 percent and the number of injury collisions jumped 18 percent.
By contrast, the insurance industry's report made no attempt at isolating variables. Instead, IIHS assumed that cameras had a magical, positive effect on driving skills citywide. Whenever accidents dropped at locations far from a camera, the benefit was credited to cameras. The only variable considered besides the number of accidents was an outdated set of population figures that could have been lifted from Wikipedia.
The British government once attempted the same trick, using police data to assert a dramatic decrease in the number killed or seriously injured on the road, thanks to speed-camera use. The British Medical Journal skewered this analysis by retrieving hospital records to find that road injuries did not in fact decrease after cameras were installed. "The overall fall seen in police statistics for non-fatal road traffic injuries probably represents a fall in completeness of reporting of these injuries," the researchers concluded.
In other words, as in so many other issues where there is a profitable outcome, the data were massaged. The only undeniable truth is that traffic cameras are a menace to due process and should be rejected on that ground alone.
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