Topic: Science & Technology

Red Light Ethics
(5/23/2004)

Critics on the right and left, not to mention libertarians, have attacked traffic law enforcement cameras as everything from creeping Big Brother-ism to a budget balancing municipal scam. The cameras catch automobiles in the act of running red lights, and the resulting photos, accompanied by tickets, go to the offending drivers. There is little choice at this point but to pay up. Naturally, the cameras vastly increase the numbers of lead-footed drivers who are apprehended, and thus create an enhanced revenue stream to the cities that use them. The latter result makes the cameras well nigh irresistible to cash-strapped local governments, and the technology is rapidly spreading around the country. As it does, the uproar from those who believe it is rife with venal motives and conflicts of interest grow louder. The District of Columbia, for example, received $15,569,721 in fines over its first two and a half years use of the cameras. Are the cities after safety or bucks?

Maybe both. According to WHO, the World Health Organization, running red lights in the US results in approximately 218,000 crashes, 880 deaths and 181,000 injuries each year at a societal cost of $14 billion. The fact that the device designed to reduce these horrendous numbers also may be a cash cow for cities does not change the fact that addressing this issue is a legitimate goal. One question raised by critics is whether there are equally effective alternatives being ignored because they cost money rather than make it. Some studies, for example, have shown that lengthening the length of the amber light at intersections significantly reduces the number of red lights run. Well, uh, yeah, that figures, if one is assuming that a driver is supposed to speed up to beat the inevitable red light once he sees a yellow: the longer the "caution" light, the better the chances of sailing through the intersection. But of course, one is supposed to slow down when the light turns from green to amber. The yellow light solution simply endorses a dangerous driving habit, and in many states, an illegal one.

The Weekly Standard's Matt Labash wrote the definitive brief against the red light cameras two years ago; indeed, his five part series approached overkill [Link: Inside the District's Red Lights.] To summarize his extensively researched and well written argument:

  • The real reason cities like the cameras is the income they produce.
  • There is inadequate evidence that the cameras really reduce accidents.
  • Many accidents attributed to running red lights are actually due to other causes, like drunk driving or speeding
  • More rear end accidents are caused by the presence of the cameras than the collisions they supposedly prevent.
  • In the absence of better data, less intrusive measures, such as a lengthened red light, are preferable to the cameras.

We have better data now than when Labash wrote his article. In April of this year, WHO released a long-awaited study examining accident rates at intersections equipped with cameras in Great Britain and Australia, and including some statistics from selected US cities (See: www.who.int/world-health-day/2004/infomaterials/world_report/en/)

Among its findings:

  • A meta-analysis of studies of the effectiveness of cameras at traffic lights has shown that they are associated with a 12 percent reduction in the number of injury crashes. A cost-benefit analysis of cameras at traffic lights in the United Kingdom calculated that the return was nearly twice the investment after one year and 12 times the investment after five years.
  • Experience from a range of high-income countries indicates that speed cameras that record photographic evidence of a speeding offence, that is admissible in a law court, are a highly effective means of speed enforcement. The well-publicized use of such equipment in places where speed limits are not generally obeyed and where the consequent risk of a crash is high has led to substantial reductions in crashes.
  • A study conducted after the introduction of cameras at sites in Oxnard, California showed the number of injury crashes falling by 29 percent and the number of front-to-side impacts involving injury falling by 68 percent, with no increase in rear impacts.

So now we know the technology works, at least according to WHO. Are these means justified by that end? Labash and others make a common mistake in ethical analysis, which is to assume that merely because some self-interest is involved in a decision, the stated reasons are a sham. Founding Father John Adams took the view that the only way he could be sure that his actions were completely ethical was if they actually hurt him in some way. But doing the right thing doesn't always have to be so hard, and balancing a city budget is itself a worth objective. It would take a compelling argument to make the case that the cameras, preventing accidents and enriching municipal coffers from the pockets of law-breakers, are not a positive development.

That argument hasn't materialized. The fact is that that the cameras show drivers running red lights, and they shouldn't do that. It is not merely illegal. It is reckless, and unethical, risking the health of others for purely selfish reasons, or for no reason at all. (Full disclosure: a good friend of the author's, just 26 years old, was killed by a light-running motorist.) Whether they were driving too fast because everyone else was (one of Labash's arguments) or whether they gunned the engine when green turned yellow and didn't get all the way through the intersection doesn't matter, and doesn't change the nature of their actions, or justify them. Why does the suspicion linger that the same people who deplore the intersection cameras buy "Fuzzbuster" devices to detect police radar? There is no right to break the law. Any motorist is fully empowered to make the presence of the cameras irrelevant by driving within the speed limit, slowing down at the amber light, and stopping before the intersection. As that is what a good citizen is supposed to do anyway, this should not be too great a burden. If the cities are being unjustly enriched, as Labash claims, it is the law-breakers who are doing the enriching.

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