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Marc Fisher

Even in Virginia, Cameras' Value Readily Apparent

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, January 25, 2005; Page B01

You'd hardly know it from the grousing on talk radio and carping on the Internet, but people do support those unforgiving red-light cameras. In Fairfax, a county survey found a whopping 81 percent favored the cameras as a way to cut red-light running.

So maybe it should come as no surprise that Virginia legislators are considering endorsing and expanding the camera program.

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Still, I must admit, a 32 to 8 vote in the Virginia Senate to keep the cameras operating for two more years was so startling, I read the story three times to make sure I got it right. (This is far from over: The House, which specializes in killing off do-gooder legislation, has yet to weigh in.)

Anyone who has spent time in Richmond watching the legislature knows what these characters are capable of. These are the folks who gleefully gut efforts to ban open containers of alcohol in cars (how terrible it would be for Virginia to become a "spoilsport state," depriving citizens of the pleasure of popping a beer while motoring) and refuse to let police stop drivers for not wearing a seat belt (wouldn't want to wrinkle people's clothes, would we?).

Could these same lawmakers now stand up against those who see red-light cameras as an infringement of their privacy, an attempt to gouge the taxpayers for big fines?

Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, the Fairfax Republican, takes the classic Virginia viewpoint, arguing that cameras are an unwarranted intrusion. Just extend the time that traffic lights remain yellow and that'll cut down on red-light running and the deaths that follow, he says. "A simple engineering change at the intersections solves the problem without issuing citations, without any of the Big Brother arguments," Cuccinelli said, according to the Associated Press.

The research on red-light cameras clearly shows that they result in far fewer violations. A new study by University of Virginia civil engineer Nicholas Garber looks at cameras in Northern Virginia and concludes that cameras cut red-light running by 21 percent. That's good. But the study also says that the number of crashes at intersections sometimes increases after cameras are installed. At 10 of 13 Fairfax intersections studied, there were slightly more accidents with cameras than there'd been without. That's bad.

The doubts raised by this study may be enough to turn the House against cameras, even though police, insurance lobbyists, road-safety advocates and victims of crashes all stand firmly by the cameras' effectiveness.

What is going on at those intersections? That red-light running is down makes perfect sense. What idiot would intentionally blow the light knowing that a camera is snapping away? So why don't accidents fall off, too? Here's a theory: Approaching camera-equipped intersections, I might not remember the camera until I'm almost there, so I might stop short, boosting the chance that someone will ram me from behind.

Sure enough, other studies explain the Virginia findings: The increase in accidents after cameras are installed really reflects a change in the kind of accidents that occur. Instead of the devastating side-angle crashes that happen when someone simply blows the light, you get generally less serious rear-end accidents stemming from drivers making a short stop at the light.

Legislators must decide whether cameras make sense as a safety tool (and not merely as a sneaky way to boost state revenue). Do drivers defeat the purpose of cameras by learning where they are and obeying the law only at those locations? Who doesn't try to game the system? For example, I slow down where I know speed cameras are installed, then often speed right up again. But I don't go all the way back up to the pace I might have driven pre-cameras.

Red-light cameras are harder to game than speed cameras. I know I've become more religious about honoring stoplights since the devices came along. It's just not worth the risk -- exactly the calculation the cameras are intended to provoke.

Altruism doesn't cut it in traffic enforcement. We all know what we're supposed to do. And since there can't be a cop at every intersection, cameras are an effective way to scare, annoy and pester us into being more careful and compliant.

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