There’s a saying that all politics are local. Nowhere has this become more apparent than in this year’s San Diego mayoral elections, where red-light cameras have suddenly become a hot topic. Both candidates, Carl DeMaio and Bob Filner, oppose the program. An online survey by the U-T San Diego shows 80 percent of its subscribers are in favor of ending the program. Yet current San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders is considering proposals to renew the city’s current red-light sys- tem. Forcing such a widely unpopu- lar program down the city’s throat in the mayor’s last lame-duck term would amount to tyranny.
Red-light cameras are designed to stop traffic accidents from happen- ing by discouraging drivers from running red lights. However, unin- tended consequences have instead caused red-light cameras to become counterproductive. When drivers approach an intersection with a red- light camera, they often slam their breaks to avoid getting a ticket for running the light. This discourages defensive driving techniques meant to keep the driver safe and leads to more rear-end collisions as a result of sudden stops.
Studies have confirmed these results. A 2007 study by the Virginia Transportation Research Council revealed rear-end collisions were al- most six times more likely than red- light-running collisions after red- light cameras had been placed. The Virginia study also found rear-end collisions increased by 891 accidents and red-light-running collisions de- creased by 527 accidents, giving red- light cameras a net increase of 364 accidents. This phenomenon isn’t limited to Virginia. A 2005 study by the Federal Highway Administra- tion found while accidents caused by red-light runners decreased after installing cameras, rear-end colli- sions increased at intersections with cameras.
Proponents argue such collisions are minor in comparison to accidents from running red lights. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there is noth- ing minor about the price tag—a staggering $8.5 million annually from neck and back injuries without counting auto repair costs cause by rear-end collisions.
The real problem isn’t people intentionally running red lights, but rather the length of time for yellow lights has been shortened. A 2001 report by former Texan House Majority Leader Dick Armey found problem intersections with a high proportion of red-light runners had decreased yellow lights’ times by as much as 30 percent. In contrast Mesa, Ariz. raised its yellow-light timing and had a 73 percent reduc- tion in red-light runners. When it ex- tended the time of its yellow lights, Maryland reported the problem of red-light running to be “virtually eliminated.”
Evidence suggests many of these yellow-time reductions are at red- light camera intersections, which means the cameras are rigged. Cities such as Chattanooga, Tenn., Nash- ville, Tenn. and Dallas, have been caught red-handed shortening the time length of yellow lights at red- light intersections. These cities were forced to refund $8,800 in red-light violations. There are likely many more cities rigging their red-light camera systems, but deregulation of yellow-light timing has made it more difficult to prove. In San Diego, the minimum time for a yellow light to change to red is 3.9 seconds for a through movement and 3.4 seconds for a turn, but every intersection is individually set.
San Diego’s red-light camera program is nothing more than a ploy to make money. In the fiscal year of 2011, the city received $1.9 million from the program. Approxi- mately $700,000 went to American Traffic Solutions, the vendor for the cameras, $1 million went to officers issuing the tickets, and the city received $200,000 in profits. This tactic to make money using a system shown to be only partially effective in reducing accidents while claiming to act in the name of motorist safety proves the city cares more about its own piggy bank than the residents it’s supposed to serve.
To pay for the huge red-light cam- era cost, first-time offenders have to pay a super-sized $490 fine. From the fine, approximately $152 of the $436 goes to the city in order to pay for the program. Such a large fine is ridiculous considering a ticket for exceeding the speed limit by 15 mph is $214. Such a hefty fine hurts lower and middle-income households who can’t afford it.
Money shouldn’t dictate the city’s traffic safety policy. We need solutions that work. Removing the cameras and extending yellow-light times will eliminate the drivers’ need to make a panic stop and allow them to get across the intersection safely.