NMA E-Newsletter #153: More Camera Company Snake Oil

Redflex Traffic Systems just announced its latest innovation in the name of traffic safety: a red-light camera system that reportedly senses when an approaching vehicle is about to run a red light and responds by trying to stop traffic on the fly with a one to two second all-red delay.

Wow! A camera that predicts the future and reads minds all at the same time! What will they think of next?

Supporters claim the new technology, dubbed a “halo system,” will improve safety. In a story from the Arizona Republic, Chandler, Arizona Police Lieutenant Richard Speer stated his department’s eagerness to test the new system. “If it is what it appears to be, it is going to save lives,” he said.

That’s a big IF. Given the camera companies’ record over the last few years – technical failures, short yellow light schemes, ticketing mistakes, increased accident rates – cities should be skeptical of claims of enhanced safety. And motorists should be as well.

Such a system could create a false sense of security, causing motorists to drop their guard at intersections and lead to even more accidents.

It’s worth noting that the vast majority of red-light camera tickets are issued for vehicles entering the intersection within the first half-second of the red light, when the accident risk is very low.

For example, a 2009 analysis of red-light camera data from Clarksville, Tennessee found that most infractions occurred in the first 0.3 seconds of the red light. Only 6.5 percent happened after the light had been red for two seconds or longer.

This mirrors an earlier Texas Transportation Institute study that found the majority of serious collisions occur five seconds or more into the red light. Based on that, the halo system’s one to two second all-red will have no impact on safety.

The system also has the potential to frustrate drivers through false alarms and mistimed lights. And frustrated drivers don’t always lead to safer roads.

But to focus solely on the system’s effectiveness, or lack thereof, misses the larger point. The real question city officials should be asking themselves is are there cheaper and more effective alternatives?

The answer is yes. We routinely document the safety benefits of proper yellow-light timing as well as other recognized traffic engineering solutions. None of which requires the presence of an expensive red-light camera system to implement.

So, what’s going on here? Redflex and the other camera companies face a host of challenges:

But the company is nothing if not resourceful, and the “promise” of this technology may shift attention away from these inconveniences as well as the real issues surrounding traffic cameras.

This isn’t the first time a camera company has tried to polish up its image with slick marketing.

In 2008 Gatso promoted the use of red-light cameras to flash cars in response to Amber Alerts, even thought the cameras can’t positively identify drivers let alone child passengers. We have yet to find any example in which the cameras have been instrumental in the retrieval of a child.

Let’s hope that decision-makers see these efforts for what they are.

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