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Hard to Put Red-Light Violations Under a Lens

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, signs warning of their presence—to record motorists who run red lights and to ticket them. The goals are 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., have found that crashes increased at intersections where cameras are installed. Here, a red-light camera in Lawrence Township, N.J., last year. But local results can vary. In recent years, municipalities including Los Angeles, Philadelphia and St. Petersburg, Fla., have found that crashes increased at intersections where cameras are installed. Everything from the choice of intersection, to how long a light stays yellow before turning red, to the methods used to evaluate the cameras can influence whether they are deemed successful. Counting rear-end crashes, for example, can sometimes mean the cameras increase the total number of accidents—as drivers slam on the brakes when they see a warning—though even an overall increase in collisions can be worthwhile, some researchers say, if the most severe crashes decline. "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 as intrusive, 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 issue for local authorities, too. Municipalities must strike a balance between using peer-reviewed studies 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 a countermeasure"—such as red-light cameras—"applied on a limited basis, where they don't have the data or, in some cases, the expertise to do the analysis," said Richard Retting, a consultant with Sam Schwartz Engineering in Fairfax, Va. Mr. Retting worked for 20 years for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, or IIHS, an insurance-industry-funded group, where he published several studies finding safety benefits from red-light cameras. He compares conducting studies of every camera-equipped intersection in a region 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 control for traffic volume or other factors—was critical in forming his opinion that cameras "do not reduce 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-equipped intersections 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 rightangle 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 are assigned a cost value in the millions of dollars. Simple before-and-after comparisons also won't do, researchers say. For one thing, intersections typically are chosen for camera installation because they have had a spate of accidents. That makes them due for a fall just by statistical chance. Also, other traffic trends or enforcement measures, such as speed cameras, could account for changes in crash rates. And choosing another site for comparison isn't easy: Choose one too close to intersections with cameras and it could experience a so-called spillover effect, when camera-less intersections along the same route 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 motorists more time to hit the brakes. Simon Washington, a civil-engineering professor at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, co-wrote a study for the Arizona Department of Transportation in 2005 that cited other work showing that extending yellow-light intervals can reduce red-light running by 50% 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.

Extending yellow times could also backfire by causing longer queues at lights and more rear-end crashes as motorists are surprised by the stopped traffic, said Ms. Eccles, the transportationengineering consultant. She added that red-light cameras generally are effective when deployed correctly. However, "because of the controversial nature of red-light cameras, I do believe an agency should consider everything else" before installing them, she said. —Learn more about this topic at Email A version of this article appeared February 2, 2013, on page A2 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Hard to Put Red-Light Violations Under a Lens.