Shaky Statistics

Now that Goldy isn’t the head honcho here any more, I think I’ll pick on him today. Over at Slog, he posts:

Following the success of last year’s local initiative outlawing red-light cameras in his hometown of Mukilteo, Eyman’s taking his latest for-profit/anti-government gimmick on the road. This year, he’s cosponsoring copycat measures in Bellingham, Monroe, Wenatchee, and Longview. But while Eyman provocatively characterizes the cameras as the “crack cocaine” of city budget writers and “taxation-­by-­citation, just another way for government to pick the pockets of taxpayers,” a definitive new study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) finds that red-light cameras save lives.

Comparing crash statistics between 1992–1996 and 2004–2008 in the 99 US cities with populations above 200,000, researchers found a 35 percent reduction in red-light fatalities in cities that implemented red-light-camera programs, versus a 14 percent reduction in those that did not.

But the cameras’ benefits actually proved to be much bigger. When all crashes at signaled intersections were tallied, not just those due to red-light running, total fatalities dropped 14 percent in cities with cameras, while rising 2 percent in cities without.

This should be fairly obvious, but the evidence described in the third paragraph doesn’t exactly bolster Goldy’s assertion. It’s proof that there are a number of other factors causing declines in vehicle fatalities other than what’s happening at red light camera intersections. These could be related to safer car construction, fewer miles traveled, changes to traffic patterns, or something else. If there’s a reduction of 14 percent in red light crashes in cities that didn’t implement red light cameras, then there are another explanations for the decline. And that explanation could perhaps also explain why there was a gap in the overall statistics from city to city.

Here’s a page from the National Motorists Association that criticizes other aspects of the study, and another page from them that details out some studies which have shown that red light cameras increase accidents.

The National Motorists Association is an organization with a strong bias in this matter, and they often play up the increase in rear-end collisions that are seen with the implementation of red light cameras, while ignoring the decreases in side-angle crashes (which are more likely to cause fatalities) from the very same studies. In the end, I think there’s a case to be made that red light cameras provide some benefit, although I find this study to be completely unconvincing in the effort of making that case. In fact, this part at the end of their press release gives you an idea of how little their numbers are actually telling them and how they understand them even less:

Results in each of the 14 camera cities varied. The biggest drop in the rate of fatal red light running crashes came in Chandler, Ariz., where the decline was 79 percent. Two cities, Raleigh, NC, and Bakersfield, Calif., experienced an increase.

“We don’t know exactly why the data from Raleigh and Bakersfield didn’t line up with what we found elsewhere,” McCartt says. “Both cities have expanded geographically over the past two decades, and that probably has a lot to do with it.”

But Chandler has easily been one of the fastest growing cities in the United States over the past 20 years as well. Why did it experience such a dramatic decrease in vehicle fatalities while Bakersfield and Raleigh saw increases? There are certainly reasons for it, but it should be evident that red light cameras aren’t one of those reasons. When looking at red light cameras and trying to figure out whether or not they work, any study that isn’t looking at specific intersections and comparing data isn’t really worth much in this debate.


  1. 1

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    When red-light cameras first appeared on the scene (in Federal Way) my initial reaction to them was negative, but I’ve changed my thinking about them. The only people who pay this “tax” are those who run red lights, and I have nothing but contempt for red-light runners.

  2. 2

    11" of swinging Max spews:


    then you obviously know nothing about how the lights work…or about how the accident rate has gone up…or about how the light timers were modified to shorten up the duration of the yellow lights.

    you old retard, just shut up already and sip your food through a straw…you as bat shit loony as they come….you only embarrass yourself with each day.

  3. 3

    Pete spews:

    Eyman could back an initiative to give biscuits to puppy dogs and Goldy would find a reason to criticize it, so I’m not sure his post is the best measure of whether an Eyman effort is a bad idea.

    That said, seems to me the implementation of red light cameras can vary widely in the details, and so comparisons among different cities (and even different intersections in the same city) are all but meaningless. It’s not much different from speeding tickets: some drivers drive recklessly and dangerously fast and deserve tickets, and some places have speed traps that are all about the revenue, regardless of how minor or innocuous the infraction. Red light cameras are no different, depending on how and where they’re set. I look forward to the Eyman initiative outlawing speeding tickets because they, you know, are another yet attempt by governments to extort hard-working taxpayers.

    What? He’s not sponsoring any? Probably because that wouldn’t lend itself as easily to his cheap demagoguery.

  4. 4

    Steve spews:

    Hmm, do you really believe that Big Brother will never move beyond automated ticketing for light violations? How would you feel if they extended automated ticketing to speed traps?

  5. 5

    slingshot spews:

    @4, Or use a car’s sat/nav to punish for all traffic violations? Including an alchohol sensing device?

    Eyman’s still a Koch sucker, either way.

  6. 6


    Actually, while it’s true that the accident rate has gone up at a lot (if not most) red light camera intersections, there’s a good argument to be made that it’s replacing more dangerous accidents with less dangerous ones. That’s why I’m still on the fence on this issue.

    Nice comment, thanks. I certainly dislike Eyman as much as any sane person in this state, so my approach to this issue isn’t about what he thinks. I’m more interested in what the truth is behind the numbers.

  7. 7

    11" of swinging Max spews:

    the truth is that these devices are set up as a money-making device….plain and simple.

    The fact is that they have not made intersection safer..and have been PROVEN to have been manipulated to increase the amount of money they generate.

    The fact that the powers that be tell us that this program is all about safety is pure BULLSHIT.

    If the powers that be were REALLY interested in safety, they wouldnt let multiple-convicted drunk drivers on the roads…yet they do, and with nary a slap on the wrist.

    Its all about the benjamin$…period.

    case closed.

  8. 9

    11" of swinging Max spews:


    or how about automated sniffers placed on the sidewalk that can detect when people have smoked pot as they walk by….and then hand out tickets or notices for court dates.

    oh wait..NOW its a bad idea..LMFAO….

  9. 11


    And some cities like to cheat!
    “1) Chattanooga, Tennessee
    The city of Chattanooga was forced refund $8800 in red light cameras tickets issued to motorists trapped by an illegally short yellow time. The refund only occurred after a motorist challenged his citation by insisting that the yellow light time of 3.0 seconds was too short. LaserCraft, the private vendor that runs the camera program in return for a cut of the profits, provided the judge with a computer database that asserted the yellow was 3.8 seconds at that location.
    The judge then personally checked the intersection in question was timed at three seconds while other nearby locations had about four seconds of yellow warning. City traffic engineer John Van Winkle told Bean that “a mix up with the turn arrow” was responsible and that the bare minimum for the light should be 3.9 seconds.
    Read the Full Story
    2) Dallas, Texas
    An investigation by KDFW-TV, a local TV station, found that of the ten cameras that issued the greatest number of tickets in the city, seven were located at intersections where the yellow duration is shorter than the bare minimum recommended by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).
    The city’s second highest revenue producing camera, for example, was located at the intersection of Greenville Avenue and Mockingbird Lane. It issued 9407 tickets worth $705,525 between January 1 and August 31, 2007. At the intersections on Greenville Avenue leading up to the camera intersection, however, yellows are at least 3.5 or 4.0 seconds in duration, but the ticket-producing intersection’s yellow stands at just 3.15 seconds. That is 0.35 seconds shorter than TxDOT’s recommended bare minimum. Dallas likewise installed the cameras at locations with existing short yellow times. A total of twenty-one camera intersections in Dallas had yellow times below TxDOT’s bare minimum recommended amount.
    The ticket camera program in Dallas made the news recently for shutting down some of its cameras because they were no longer profitable.
    Read the Full Story
    3) Springfield, Missouri
    The city of Springfield, Missouri prepared for the installation of a red light camera system in 2007 by slashing the yellow warning time by one second at 105 state-owned intersection signals across the city.
    The city defended its effort to the Springfield News-Leader by claiming it was “standardizing” and had increased the yellow time at 136 city-operated lights to meet national standards. During the city council meeting last October where the red light camera ordinance was approved, however, Assistant Director of Public Works Earl Newman gave a different explanation for the reduction. Newman said he was, “concerned that many individuals run the light if the light remained yellow too long.””

  10. 13

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    4, 5 – Quite some time ago I suggested that eventually technology will replace drivers with computer-guided cars. Then nobody will get tickets.

  11. 14

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @7 Awww … booo hooo … it doesn’t bother me a BIT that the red light runners are getting relieved of their hard-earned cash and city coffers get fattened at the same time — kill two birds with one stone. The more fines they pay, the less taxes I have to pay.

  12. 15

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @11 “shorter than the bare minimum recommended by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).”

    Problem solved. The way you keep red-light cameras from being manipulated to fleece the public is by enacting statewide standards and a statute that voids all tickets issued by any camera setup that doesn’t meet the standards.

  13. 16

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    Oh, and how about hiring a PUBLIC EMPLOYEE to audit the red-light cameras to ensure compliance with state standards?

    As a long-time state attorney I can tell you from personal experience that NO law is self-enforcing. If you want safe food, you need food safety inspectors. If you want safe roads, you need traffic cops. If you don’t want banks to collapse, you need bank examiners.

  14. 19

    What do you expect spews:

    @2 (sarcasm if case you’re too dumb to notice)

    BUT … this is the FREE market at work! These red light cameras are operated by the (drum roll and cue video backdrop of Ronald Reagan with flag flowing behind him) private sector! Yes, the city gets a cut. Did you NOTICE the sentence above: “LaserCraft, the private vendor that runs the camera program”. Remember, EVERYTHING the private sector does is good and the public sector is bad. Police (public sector) bad. Traffic cameras (private sector) are good. Why do you hate America…are you a Communist!? Are you trying to take jobs away from LaserCraft and GIVE THEM back to the “gov’ment”. COMMIE! We all know that private company are only mystically good and pure and NEVER do anything wrong (sure fraud and theft occurs with Enron, Tyco, Global Crossing, World Com, Goldman Sachs, Halliburton, but they’re the ONLY ones I’m sure)

  15. 21

    Michael spews:

    Just out of curiosity, can these things pickup bicycles?* Some of the speed detectors that flash how fast you’re going can’t pickup bikes. The one by my house just flashes “slow down” at me when I’m on my bike.

    *Q: what do you call a bicyclist that runs red lights?
    A: not long for this world.

  16. 23

    notme spews:

    @1 Roger, the first cameras in this state were in Lakewood, not Federal Way. I know it is hard to tell them apart, but just sayin’.

    @7 Can’t speak for the deep south where speed traps have been a tradition long before there was camera technology, but there is no proof (even if you capitalize it) in this state that any city has shortened yellow lights in order to generate more tickets. It doesn’t make any sense. The violation occurs if you enter the intersection on a red light, not if the light turns from yellow to red while you are crossing the intersection.

    @16 The larger cities all do have a commissioned officer review video from cameras and make the actual determination about a violation. Smaller cities are supposed to do that to, but I can’t say for sure that they do.

  17. 24

    rhp6033 spews:

    The safety studies are one thing, but it misses one of the major points of installing the red light cameras: preventing gridlock.

    Most of my experience with red-light cameras is in Lynnwood. There, two intersections are among the most crowded in the state: 196th SE and 44th, and 196th & Hwy 99. Both of these intersections not only handle local traffic, but also a lot of the traffic to/from the Edmonds Ferry to Hwy 99, I-5, and the Lynnwood Park & Ride.

    It’s not unusual during a rush hour to have to wait through two or three lights to be able to cross those intersections. So impatient drivers have tended to try to follow traffic through the intersection right through yellow and well into the red light. Invariably, somebody gets stuck in the middle of the intersection and unable to move, and then you have gridlock where nobody can move. The red light cameras have all but ended that practice.

    But this is just an example of the extent to which we are having to go through to try to fix a system which is pretty full, as it is. The only other solution for the Lynnwood intersctions I mentioned is to convert them to highway overpass/cloverleafs, which would be the death knell of the local businesses at those intersections, and push local traffic onto residential streets which aren’t designed for them.

  18. 25

    rhp6033 spews:

    Oh, and having grown up in Chattanooga, I’m sure it was all about the money there. Any private firm which wants to take money out of the pockets of the citizens and split a portion of the take with the local politicians is usually going to have their way there. Nobody there wants to pay any taxes (it’s about as red politically as you can get), so you end up with citizens being justifiably angry, but usually at the wrong people. In the 1970’s Chattanooga had a police commissioner who was named “Bookie”, he claimed it was because he was always reading as a kid, but everyone knew better.

  19. 26


    The safety studies are one thing, but it misses one of the major points of installing the red light cameras: preventing gridlock.

    I haven’t heard that before. That’s an interesting take.

  20. 27

    Emmanuel Goldstein spews:

    Way to go, Roger Rabbit. 2, 7, 9, 11, 18, 20, 22: You can really make 11″ Maxie Squeal. Ha-ha-ha.

  21. 28

    dv90821 spews:

    Intersection size and traffic cycle times leads to red-light runners as well.

    In Bothell/Trasher’s Corner, at Bothell-Everett hwy (SR 527) and Filbert/208th (SR 524) where EB traffic turns left onto NB B-E hwy, many drivers run the yellow light thinking they have enough time to turn before it turns red. But they have to cross (2 lanes each) over about four lanes of traffic and end up blocking the next light cycle of drivers (like me) who are turning left. There’s no camera at this intersection, but like @24 says, it does contribute to gridlock.

  22. 29


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