Stop! On Second Thought...

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Beware of technology's unexpected consequences. Consider red-light cameras. For those of you who don't know what they are, they are not cameras in an area a few blocks east of Dam Square in Amsterdam--or any other red-light district for that matter. Red-light cameras sit on poles at intersections. Many of them supposedly employ sophisticated combinations of hardware and software that monitor vehicular traffic and take into account factors such as vehicle weight to calculate safe stopping times. In theory, at intersections with the more-advanced type of devices, if a U-Haul and a Camry both run the light, the Camry might be ticketed, but the U-Haul might not because the U-Haul weighs more and is harder to stop. This information is used to take pictures of the license plates and, in some cases, the drivers of cars that run red lights. The owners of the cars then receive tickets for the infractions.

Here in Toronto, the powers that be have put a bit of a spin on this concept. The city has more poles than cameras, so it rotates the cameras among the locations. I guess that's to make up for the fact that we don't have casinos.

Before I go any further, let me just say that this tirade is not driven by any personal desire for revenge. I have never been caught by a red-light camera, although I was, many years ago, caught by a camera that claimed that I was speeding. It was probably right.

What are the unexpected consequences of red-light cameras? Here's one: A woman in Baltimore slammed on her brakes at an intersection when the light turned yellow. A car behind her did not stop in time, wrecking the woman's car. Why did the woman slam on her brakes when safety dictated proceeding? She was a regular at that intersection and knew it had a red-light camera. She was paranoid about getting a ticket. The woman claimed that if she didn't know that the intersection had a camera, she would have gone through. The moral of the story is ignorance is bliss--and maybe a lot safer.

In theory, red-light cameras reduce side-impact collisions because fewer people run red lights where they know cameras exist. Some studies indicate that this is true, but the studies usually only look at intersections with red-light cameras. I don't know about other cities, but Toronto places cameras at only a very small percentage of the intersections with traffic lights. The poles are grey so that they are not too obvious, but they are still rather large and hard to miss if you drive through an intersection on a regular basis. Even if there is a reduction in side-impact collisions at intersections with red-light camera poles, I suspect that there is little change in the incidence of accidents at the vast majority of intersections without them.

Another complaint that I and many other people have about red-light cameras is that they catch the car, not the driver. The problem is that, as the famous saying goes, "Cars don't run red lights; people run red lights." OK, maybe I'm thinking of some other saying. The point is that if you, a Good Samaritan, loan your car to a friend in need and that friend is caught by a red-light camera, you are responsible for paying the fine and, depending on the jurisdiction, you may also lose points on your license. (Because of this problem of nabbing the car instead of the driver, some jurisdictions, including the one where I live, don't register demerit points against your license if you are caught by a red-light camera rather than a police officer, but you still have to pay the fine.)

Many people are also concerned about privacy issues. Errant husbands and wives don't want to be photographed being somewhere where they shouldn't be when they said they were working late. What happens when the tickets arrive unexpectedly and are seen by their spouses? The perpetrators may be scum, but even scum has a right to privacy.

Yes, but the reduction in human and property harm makes it all worthwhile, right? Don't bet on it. It seems that the woman in Baltimore is not unique. According to a January 5, 2005, New York Times article, some studies show that the reduction in the number of side-impact collisions has been nearly or wholly offset by increased rear-end collisions.

Let's boil it all down. There are privacy concerns and legal concerns, and the red-light cameras might not even be particularly effective at reducing the total number of accidents, so why do politicians keep installing red-light cameras? I don't know; it couldn't be the money, could it? In some cities, the fine for running a red light is more than $300. Most officials deny that money is a motivating factor behind red-light cameras, but there is at least one honest mayor (brave soul) out there. According to the New York Times article, Washington, DC mayor Anthony A. Williams came right out and said that one of the reasons that he wanted more red-light cameras was an "urgent need" to collect revenue.

Red-light camera schemes vary, but in some cases the government doesn't even have to pay for the cameras. Instead, they split the revenue with the vendors. Now there's a sweet deal, but of course we can trust the vendors, right? Uh huh. The New York Times story reported that documents showed that Lockheed Martin IMS, the supplier of red-light cameras in San Diego, looked for intersections with steep hills and short yellow-light times.

There have even been accusations that, in some cities, yellow-light times have been shortened at intersections with red-light cameras in order to increase revenues. If this is true, it is done despite the fact that studies have shown that the best way to reduce all types of accidents at controlled intersections is to increase, not decrease yellow-light times.

If the politicians are so desperate for revenue, rather than causing more rear-end collisions by installing red-light cameras and increasing all types of accidents by shortening yellow-light times, why don't they just pass more laws? "Sorry, miss, I'm going to have to give you a ticket for crossing your eyes in public." "You young whippersnappers think that you can get away with anything. Well, think again. That'll be a $50 fine for wearing badly scuffed blue suede shoes. We don't put up with that sort of thing here in Memphis." It may be ridiculous, but at least it doesn't cause accidents.

Joel Klebanoff is a consultant, a writer, and president of Klebanoff Associates, Inc., a Toronto, Canada-based marketing communications firm. Joel has 25 years experience working in IT, first as a programmer/analyst and then as a marketer. He holds a Bachelor of Science in computer science and an MBA, both from the University of Toronto. Contact Joel at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Because he lives downtown and works out of his home, he mostly walks or takes public transit and only puts about five or six thousand kilometers (3,107 to 3,728 miles) on his car each year. Consequently, red-light cameras aren't really that big an issue for him. Now, if they ever invent a jay-walking camera...