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Red light cameras' safety benefits depend in part on politics

Most Americans would probably agree that the purpose of traffic laws should be public safety. Enforcement of laws against running red lights is necessary, for example, because the threat of consequences is one of the few things that will motivate some people to avoid doing it. Red light cameras seem like a rational way to enforce that law, if only because they're always on patrol.

Suppose a city decided to install red light cameras and then substantially shortened its yellow lights in comparison to surrounding cities. A lot of drivers who were habituated to longer yellows would suddenly end up running red lights, wouldn't they? That wouldn't promote safety at intersections ... but it would increase city revenue.

People would probably be pretty angry, wouldn't they? Especially if they found out that the red light camera company the city was using had been caught bribing public officials in 10 states.

Camera enforcement is extremely efficient at doing what it's told

A recent case in another state illustrates the problem. Perhaps because the city got its cameras from Redflex, the company involved in the bribery scandal, a grand jury was called in to assess whether the red light camera program was having a positive impact on intersection safety.

Unfortunately, the grand jury found that yellow lights in the city were quite a bit shorter than state law allowed -- sometimes by up to a second. The city is required to manually audit every yellow light on a monthly basis, but the grand jury found their audit records were fraudulent. Even more troubling, the city said it had set the timing based on videos provided by Redflex. Not only would that method be unorthodox, even Redflex says it wouldn't work.

The city had defended the red light camera program on the basis that it improves safety at intersections, so grand jury also asked the city to provide crash data to support that claim. In fact, it asked the city for that data three times. The first two times they were given data that didn't add up. The third time, the city admitted that it had no such data -- and doesn't even analyze what crash data it does collect.

Red light cameras are only a tool; one you can use however you want. Let's hope West Virginia officials are using them correctly -- and wisely.

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