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Wall Street Journal article from Rich Neumeister

Wall Street Journal article from Rich Neumeister

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Wall Street Journal article from Rich Neumeister
Wall Street Journal article from Rich Neumeister

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Hard to Put Red-Light Violations Under aLens
As red-light cameras have proliferated around the U.S. over the past two decades to hundreds of cities and towns, there is one troubling detail: They don't always make traffic intersections safer.Police departments in more than 500 cities and towns use the cameras
and, usually, signswarning of their presence
to record motorists who run red lights and to ticket them. The goalsare to deter drivers from going through an intersection after the light has turned red and to prevent dangerous crashes.In recent years, municipalities including Los Angeles, Philadelphia and St. Petersburg, Fla., havefound that crashes increased at intersections where cameras are installed. Here, a red-lightcamera in Lawrence Township, N.J., last year.But local results can vary. In recent years, municipalities including Los Angeles, Philadelphiaand St. Petersburg, Fla., have found that crashes increased at intersections where cameras areinstalled. Everything from the choice of intersection, to how long a light stays yellow beforeturning red, to the methods used to evaluate the cameras can influence whether they are deemedsuccessful.Counting rear-end crashes, for example, can sometimes mean the cameras increase the totalnumber of accidents
as drivers slam on the brakes when they see a warning
though even anoverall increase in collisions can be worthwhile, some researchers say, if the most severe crashesdecline."We don't have a laboratory where we can look at these things," said Kimberly Eccles, a principal at Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., an engineering consulting firm.Red-light cameras have been controversial for several reasons. Privacy advocates regard them asintrusive, and many motorists complain they have been unfairly ticketed for relatively minor infractions, such as rolling right turns on red.The conflicting research results on cameras' effectiveness have made them a contentious issuefor local authorities, too. Municipalities must strike a balance between using peer-reviewedstudies from other towns or cities
which include advanced statistical analysis and control for traffic volume and other factors
and using their own raw numbers, which may not account for all factors but do reflect local conditions.
"It's sort of a mistake in some ways for every city to try to conduct a comprehensive analysis of acountermeasure"
such as red-light cameras
"applied on a limited basis, where they don't havethe data or, in some cases, the expertise to do the analysis," said Richard Retting, a consultantwith Sam Schwartz Engineering in Fairfax, Va.Mr. Retting worked for 20 years for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, or IIHS, aninsurance-industry-funded group, where he published several studies finding safety benefits fromred-light cameras. He compares conducting studies of every camera-equipped intersection in aregion to doctors conducting individual research papers on each patient rather than relying on published medical studies.But Declan O'Scanlon, a New Jersey state assemblyman, said the state department of transportation's initial study of crashes at camera-equipped intersections
which didn't controlfor traffic volume or other factors
was critical in forming his opinion that cameras "do notreduce accidents, which makes them not worthwhile." The state, in a report published in November, found that crashes in most categories of severity increased at camera-equippedintersections in the year after they were installed.Researchers caution that raw data could mislead in several ways. For one thing, simple counts of crashes lump together rear-end hits that damage cars but not people with more dangerous right-angle crashes. Some studies, such as the New Jersey report, translate types of crash into their typical cost equivalent
for instance, $216,000 for disabling injury compared with $7,400 for crashes that damage only property. Just a few fatal crashes can skew the results because they areassigned a cost value in the millions of dollars.Simple before-and-after comparisons also won't do, researchers say. For one thing, intersectionstypically are chosen for camera installation because they have had a spate of accidents. Thatmakes them due for a fall just by statistical chance. Also, other traffic trends or enforcementmeasures, such as speed cameras, could account for changes in crash rates. And choosinganother site for comparison isn't easy: Choose one too close to intersections with cameras and itcould experience a so-called spillover effect, when camera-less intersections along the sameroute are affected by motorists conditioned by cameras.Some traffic engineers say other types of interventions can be at least as beneficial as cameras,without their privacy issues. Lengthening yellow-light intervals, for example, gives motoristsmore time to hit the brakes.Simon Washington, a civil-engineering professor at Queensland University of Technology inBrisbane, Australia, co-wrote a study for the Arizona Department of Transportation in 2005 thatcited other work showing that extending yellow-light intervals can reduce red-light running by50% to 70%.But Prof. Washington isn't sure that is the way to go. "If you increase yellow times all around,you reduce the capacity of intersections," he said.

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