- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2011

The traffic-camera industry must be getting desperate. The Los Angeles Police Commission unanimously voted on June 7 to end the use of red-light cameras in America’s second-largest city. Voters in Houston last year amended the city charter to compel a reluctant city council to unplug the devices, which had been generating $10 million in annual revenue.

Faced with the prospect of losing generous revenue streams in other major cities, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) on Thursday released a purportedly scientific study of public opinion on the matter. The industry group claimed motorists broadly favor automatic ticketing machines. “The strong public support confirms that red-light camera opponents, while vocal and often influential, are a minority,” an IIHS press release summarized. In fact, two-thirds of big-city drivers, including 78 percent of District residents, were absolutely in love with the idea of being ticketed by a robot, it said. That ought to be news to Washingtonians who realize that the mere mention of the roadside ticket dispensers is sure to generate a heated, negative response that cuts across demographic and party lines.

Anecdotes, of course, are not evidence, and the IIHS survey fails to withstand more careful scrutiny. Consider this Orwellian whopper: “Even in Houston, a city that voted in a November 2010 referendum to shut off its cameras, a majority of drivers say they favor red-light camera enforcement.” If a telephone poll of 300 people shows 57 percent support of a policy recently rejected by 53 percent of the 343,481 people who voted, that’s conclusive proof that the poll’s methodology is flawed. Instead, IIHS insists, “the people who went to the polls don’t seem to represent the majority of drivers.” In Texas, there are 15.3 million licensed drivers but just 13 million registered voters. Voters are drivers.

Such a result ought not come as a surprise from an outfit whose primary purpose has been to encourage government agencies to issue more traffic tickets in the name of safety. Surely it is no coincidence that the insurance companies that pay the bills at IIHS increase their profits each time such tickets are issued and surcharges are levied - photo tickets carry points in several states, including California. Government agencies are similarly motivated to install cameras at budget time and become lukewarm to them if the profits fail to materialize.

The public is never lukewarm on the issue; its response has been uniformly negative. Fifteen cities have put cameras to the ballot test, and cameras have failed each and every time. In Sykesville, Md., 61 percent opposed camera use. In Sulphur, La., the tally was 86 percent against. In Anaheim, Calif., the vote was 73 percent against. Another half-dozen municipal ballot votes are likely by year’s end as camera opponents gather signatures in California, Ohio, Texas and Washington state.

The ticketing industry can see the tide turning, and its response is growing erratic. This transparent attempt by the IIHS to bolster the popularity of a despised public policy ought to raise doubts the next time the group cooks up another “study” claiming red-light cameras save lives. The best independent research, especially that of the Virginia Transportation Research Council, says otherwise. The ticketing industry doesn’t care. For them, it’s about saving profit margins.