January 26, 2012

Red Light Cameras Fail To Improve Safety In Kansas City

The Kansas City Police Department recently completed a study of the city’s red light camera program, detailed in the Kansas City Star. The study’s focus? Whether red light cameras have improved safety on Kansas City streets since they were installed in January 2009. The conclusion? No.

Since January 2009, accidents increased at 11 of 17 monitored intersections, and fatal crashes increased at 13 of those locations. Kansas City is not the first to see this happen with its red light camera program. The Star interviewed University of Illinois at Chicago Assistant Professor Rajiv Shah, who studied a red light camera program in Chicago:

“I’d say [Kansas City’s results are] very consistent with what cities across America have found . . . There’s really not a hard connection between reducing accidents and red-light cameras.”

The results of this study should have red light camera proponents reevaluating their positions. As we have pointed out before, red light cameras have many problems: they invade privacy and create a constitutionally suspect presumption of guilt. They are also prone to mistake. Brenda Talent, executive director of the Show-Me Institute, was fined for a violation she did not commit in Kansas City last year, and 1,000 lucky drivers were falsely accused of running red lights in Arnold, Mo., just two weeks ago.

Not surprisingly, American Traffic Solutions, the company that runs the program, publicly criticized the police department’s findings. ATS identified weather patterns, impaired drivers, and cell phone usage as the cause for increased wrecks. In other words, ATS identified anything but the red light cameras, which the company receives $1.6 million a year to operate, as the culprit for the increased crashes.

Despite the police study, it is likely that camera proponents will not rest. The Star editorial focused on a study by city engineers that found a decrease in total violations at monitored intersections. The Star praised the decrease in violations and declared that “red light cameras are working in Kansas City.” Fewer people running red lights, maybe; but if more accidents are occurring at monitored intersections, it is a stretch to conclude that red light cameras improve safety just because total violations have dropped.

Much to the dismay of proponents like the Star, the police study just confirmed what we already knew. Red light cameras are not about public safety, they are about generating revenue through traffic enforcement. The program has been very lucrative in Kansas City. The police study reports that officers have written nearly 200,000 tickets at $100 per ticket — adding $20 million to the city coffers.

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