Sunday, February 26, 2017

The case for speed and red light cameras

Mayor Pugh indicated that she wants to have the Baltimore red-light and speed cameras up and running again by the end of the year,“We want our children to feel safe crossing our streets. We want you to feel safe crossing the street,, as she told WBFF, the local Fox channel.
Baltimore City Red Light cameras: Out of use for years
Following the interview with the Mayor, Fox 45 had the comments of a "highway engineer" who is the head of Simmers Highway Associates (SHA), a cute take on the State Highway Adminsitration, also abbreviated SHA. He predicted that "these cameras won't be anymore reliable than the previous ones and that they never will", a commentary in line with the stand that this TV station held for a long time, namely that government is greedy and too incompetent to run anything correctly. In line with that thinking is also the "Maryland Drivers Alliance (Motto: Defending Motorist Rights in the "Free" State) which supports Maryland House-Bill 536 to repeal speed cameras altogether. The Drivers Alliance explains:
Speed cameras have been particularly criticized since 2012 when it was discovered that Baltimore City has erroneously cited thousands of innocent motorists for speeding.   The city's own audit found that as many as 10% of all citations were due to errors, meaning 1 in 10 motorists cited were actually innocent of what they were accused of.  Cases included documented examples of "speeding" vehicles that were not even moving, and large trucks falsely cited for traveling twice their actual speed.  Local governments and speed camera contractors had previously lied, telling the public that their equipment could not be wrong because it was "tested and calibrated", and that "if you don't speed you won't get a ticket", even though speed camera vendor Xerox later needed to acknowledge that even properly calibrated equipment could be subject to what they called "radar effects".   Similar errors have been reported elsewhere in the state, including in College ParkBrentwoodNew Carrollton, Forest HeightsCheverly, and Montgomery County.
Speed cameras and red light cameras were permitted in Maryland by enabling bills that had been passed in 2006 (for Montgomery County) and 2009 (for all of Maryland). Currently 46 jurisdictions have cameras installed or operating, including the inactive system in Baltimore City). Total revenues in 2015 were $57 million.
Speed cameras: Common in Maryalnd

A  bill to repeal the cameras was first introduced in 2016 never got out of House and Senate committees and didn't reach "the floor" for a vote. The State's "Fiscal Note" attached to the bill explains the impact that the bill would have on State revenues (the State operates speed cameras in work zones):
A reliable estimate of the decrease in TTF and special fund revenues and related enforcement costs cannot be made due to uncertainty regarding the number of paid future work zone speed control system citations. In fiscal 2016, about $9.1 million was collected from the payment of citations generated by work zone speed control systems. Revenues have generally decreased as compliance has increased. For instance, in fiscal 2015, about $13.3 million was collected from citations generated by work zone speed control systems, compared to $14.9 million in fiscal 2014 and $16.4 million in fiscal 2013.(Fiscal Note)
Cameras in work zones especially on freeways and Interstates were set up after several crashes caused by speeding drivers plowing into work zones and killing work crew members.
The fiscal notes continues to discuss local revenues:
Red Light cameras in Maryland
In fiscal 2015 (the most recent year for which complete data is available), 46 local jurisdictions generated speed monitoring system fine revenues of about $57.0 million, of which just under half ($28.2 million) was retained by local jurisdictions for public safety programs after recovery of the costs of implementing the systems. This does not include revenues or expenditures for several counties that operate both speed monitoring and red light camera programs. For example, Montgomery County estimates that red light citation revenues decline by $4.1 million in fiscal 2018, in addition to a $17.2 million decline in speed camera citation payments. 
Those who want to repeal the right of speed and red light enforcement via automated cameras tend to talk a lot about "big brother" and that the cameras only serve the purpose of creating extra revenue. While the revenues from fines are really high,  the amount of violations is really what people should be talking about. In Maryland the individual fines are limited to $40 a pop for speeding and $100 for running a light, because camera tickets are treated as minor civil infractions (like parking tickets, meaning the fine is issued to the vehicle holder rather than the actual driver). To consider the violations criminal infractions the actual vehicle operator would have to be photographed along with the license plate. Many other countries photograph the driver and can assign fines based on moving violations just like an officer could that would actually stop a vehicle and identify the driver.
Speed enforcement Switzerland

To collect $57 million out of those fines a whopping 840,000 motorists ran red lights or sped in excess of 12 mph above the speed limit assuming an average fine of $70. Given that these cameras are mostly installed at high crash intersections, in school-zones and at construction zones and that in the latter two they are only allowed to operate when schools are in session or work is being performed, we really have a violation problem and not an enforcement problem.

Anybody who has set foot into Baltimore during the last two years when all cameras where set to the "off" position can attest to ruthless driving, running red lights and excessive speeding. Hoping that somebody would stop at a crosswalk that has no signal is like waiting for snow in August. Drivers are texting and telephoning while driving with impunity, the turn cutting off pedestrians legally in the crosswalk and having the right of way, they pass bicyclists within inches instead of feet and pass school buses that have red flashers on. The police is understaffed and overworked, the green vest DOT traffic controllers have no enforcement powers.

Baltimore's and the State's traffic safety record has suffered in recent years with an increase in fatalities after years of decrease. Between 2014 and 2015 Baltimore traffic fatalities increased from 29 to 39, a 34% increase! Statewide fatalities increased by 15%. The causes are not entirely clear but are suspected to be related to increased speed limits on freeways, an increase in driving from the drop in fuel prices and distracted driving from smart phones.
Speed enforcement England

International studies show clearly that speed and safety are directly related and that exceeding the mean driving speed in any given situation is especially dangerous.
The research literature makes it clear that illegal speed increases both crash risk and crash severity. There is also substantial evidence that speed cameras reduce speeding. Consequently, research finds that speed cameras reduce crashes and crash severity. (Center for Transportation Safety Texas Transportation Institute 2006).
So why wouldn't automatic cameras be an appropriate solution to at least a small part of the problem? The discussion about privacy and accuracy is mostly a red herring to avert from the underlying issue. Law abiding citizens that drive reasonably within the speed limits and don't run red lights are not affected at all. Pedestrians or bicyclists are not affected either In fact, they and their safety are the main beneficiaries especially of cameras installed in school zones or signalized intersections. Montgomery County was subject of a seven year study with these findings:
Cameras have reduced by 59 percent the likelihood of a driver exceeding the speed limit by more than 10 mph, compared with similar roads in two nearby Virginia counties that don't have speed cameras, the latest study found.
The researchers also looked at crashes on camera-eligible roads in Montgomery County, relative to comparison roads in Virginia. They found that the camera program resulted in a 19 percent reduction in the likelihood that a crash would involve a fatality or an incapacitating injury, as reported by a police officer on the scene.
"Speed cameras get drivers to ease off the accelerator, and crashes are less likely to be deadly at lower speeds," Lund says. "This study connects the dots to show that speed cameras save lives." (Study)
Radar based speed and red light cameras have been in use in Europe since the 70s. They are so common in England and Germany, that speeding in speed restricted zones or red line running is quite uncommon. The fines are hundreds of dollars and include points.

The technology has certainly been refined to a point where proper calibration is possible and achievable. All the Mayor has to do is decouple the fees for the private companies running the systems from the total amount collected, i.e. provide no incentive to increase the number of violations through any type of manipulation. It is curious why precisely those who always spout off about law and order would be the ones trying to take down effective enforcement.

Baltimore urgently needs the cameras back in use and the statewide bill should once again be defeated in the interest of safety.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Insurance study report


  1. If they were also in wealthy neighborhoods, sure. If the lights they are pointing at didn't have obviously hacked shortened yellows, sure. It is another poor/black tax. If a yellow is less than 1 second per 10 mph of speed it isn't safe to stop.

    1. Those cameras are not limited to poor neighborhoods. The yellow phase was adjusted after complaints. It is shorter in the City where permitted speeds are lower Usually 30mph) than in the County (usually 45mph on arteries). There are standards for this, the yellow phase isn't random. To call it a poor/black tax ignores the demographics of the drivers on major City routes which isn't identical to the demographic of surrounding neighborhoods.