- The Washington Times - Friday, October 25, 2002

An outfit called the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running takes issue with AAA, House Majority Leader Dick Armey and other critics of using cameras to enforce traffic laws. The group trots out a number of studies defending the use of cameras and cites reductions in accidents and fatalities supposedly tied to the adoption of this invasive technology. But there are equally valid studies that suggest precisely the opposite, including a few recent ones detailing an uptick in rear-end accidents caused by sudden panic stops.

Motorists fearful of clearing an intersection where a camera lurks often slam on their brakes even though the light is yellow causing the vehicles that are following them to slam into them. Simple improvements, such as re-timing traffic signals and the use of an all-red "clearance interval" during which both sides are kept red for a second or so to allow all traffic to clear the intersection cut the incidence of red light-running by half, a 1999 study by AAA Michigan found. The challenge put forward by the National Motorists Association (and editorialized on in this space previously) to adopt longer yellow intervals rather than cameras has yet to be accepted by any area government even though it has been shown that slightly increasing the amount of time a signal remains yellow (from about 4-seconds to about 5.5 seconds), has cut red-light violations by as much as 95 percent at intersections such as Route 50 and Fair Ridge Drive in Fairfax County. Also, a decade-long study in Melbourne, Australia, (1979-1989) by the Australian Road Research Board found "there has been no demonstrated value of the red light camera as an effective countermeasure."

Mr. Armey says that "safety has never been the primary consideration" when it comes to the adoption of red-light cameras, and that officials have "consciously sought out mistimed intersections" as sites for cameras, as a means to collect "revenue" via the automated tickets ginned up by the cameras.

But the debate over the effectiveness of red-light cameras and photo radar is peripheral. It dances around two fundamental questions. Do we want to erect, in the name of safety, what amounts to a surveillance grid? Do we want our law-enforcement establishment partnering with the private sector on a for-profit basis?

Unsafe driving is certainly a problem that must be addressed. But turning over a law-enforcement function to for-profit corporations is not the right way to address that problem.

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