I received my final Christmas present for the year last night. I’d just finished a nine hour road trip from Indiana, and waiting for me in the mailbox was a crisp envelope from the City of Kansas City, Missouri, cheerily marked, “NOTICE OF VIOLATION.” I knew what this would be about. I’d gotten one before, when I’d failed to come to a “complete stop” at a red light before turning right. I was mad then, but I was furious last night, because this latest red light ticket came as a result of my avoiding an accident.
I was headed north on “highway” 71, a 45 mph, four-lane thoroughfare that’s been unfortunately shackled with about 587 traffic lights over ten miles. Incessant rain spattered from the heavens and lubricated the tarmac nicely. According to the ticket, I was travelling at 47 mph when the light changed and I crossed the line.
Why did I do it? Dear mother! What tragedy has befallen your son that he would turn to a life of despicable crime? Well, my tires needed a refresh, I was barreling down on the wet intersection at nearly 50 mph, and I didn’t think slamming on the brakes was a good idea. My WRX is equipped with ABS, but it hadn’t gotten a good workout at that point, and I wasn’t sure how much it would do for me in that situation. The flash went off, and I rolled through.
The very next day, in the midst of the same weather, I faced the same short yellow light, but decided to stop this time, and leaned on the center pedal. I nearly slid into the curb and ended up straddling the crosswalk. Somehow I think running the light would have been safer.
But this does illuminate an important argument against red light cameras. They often end up causing more accidents than they prevent. Several studies have been done to indicate that the threat of a red light camera causes people to slam on their brakes, as to avoid the steep fine of $100 for letting the robo-cop catch them. At some monitored intersections in Los Angeles, collisions tripled in number after the cameras were installed.
Proponents of red light cameras, however, argue that this is collateral damage, as mid-intersection collisions are statistically lower. These are usually “t-bone” type accidents, which are, admittedly, more dangerous than front or rear collisions. Does it have to be one or the other, though? Are there ways to reduce both types of accidents at traffic lights? Of course, but local governments, and the camera companies they hire, aren’t too keen to promote them.
This year the City of Kansas City, Missouri made over $1.4 million on the cameras, charging $100 per violation. American Traffic Solutions, the private contractor who installed and maintains the cameras, charges the city $4,500 per intersection, per month. Kansas City has installed 29 cameras in January. A little calculator punching means that ATS makes about $1,566,000 from the city annually. That’s a hefty chunk for some webcams and server space.
This, then, is pretty big business. ATS has even set up a convenient payment plan for Kansas City, promising to get the system on its feet, professionally, before charging. According to an info sheet on kcmo.org, “The City was not invoiced until enough fine revenue had been generated to pay the invoice.” How thoughtful.
Now I thought on that first slippery day, when I ran through the red light, that I probably wouldn’t get a ticket. In an effort to prevent the Rise of the Machines, Kansas City supposedly payrolls a certified, human police officer to watch every video and pass judgment on whether or not the violation was illegal or just a malfunction. My violation was illegal, to be sure. But would my accuser, had he been sitting at the intersection in a real-live Crown Vic, have ticketed me for it? I tend to think not.
While red light cameras are marketed as a way to promote safe, conscious driving, they tend to do the opposite. Instead they trigger the erratic, the unpredictable. We’re left with grinding ABS and sliding tires. We end up in crosswalks with shattered bumpers and whiplash. Municipalities like Kansas City have either ignored this trend or have treated is as acceptable loss.
But they’re not the ones losing money. We are. And they’re raking in the profits.
Perhaps there’s an actual solution. What if yellow lights were longer, and both red lights shared a few seconds on each change? What if a little tweaking of traditional traffic light systems could save us all a great deal of money and keep us all safer? At one Virginia intersection, a 1.5 second increase of yellow time reduced violations there by 94%. And some have suggested that yellow light cycles at monitored lights tend to be shorter, which would be great for business, as I found out the hard way.
What do you think? Should I have slammed on my brakes that first day? Do you think cities should use red light cameras? Do they promote safety?