Obenski column: Red light cameras are just a cash grab

Red light cameras, speed limit enforcement cameras. This draconian idea has been around for many years. It does not really catch on, because it does not really promote safety as they claim. It does what it’s designed to do. Collect revenue.

Who supports it? The vendors who install the equipment, and often get a share of the take! How’s that for conflict of interest? The politicians, because the general fund gets more money without raising taxes. Some police want a share. In fact, the biggest impediment to passage of such a law is debating how to divide the spoils. One county official was heard to say, “We will support it if we get a share of the revenue.”

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Lawmakers in Hawaii, meanwhile, are currently considering a law that would allow red light cameras across the state.

There is no doubt that those drivers, usually impaired, who blatantly run red lights in the middle of a cycle are a hazard. But how often does that happen? The cameras may catch one of those a year. More often they catch the driver who misjudges how much time is left on yellow and enters the intersection a fraction of a second too late, but before cross traffic has begun. It is frankly difficult to determine the legal boundary of intersection as one approaches. It’s not the limit line!

Twenty-eight years of my experience was detailed analysis of traffic crashes, over 2,000 of them, calculating to the fraction of a second what happened. It’s called traffic accident reconstruction.

California had to pass a law forbidding the camera vendors from getting a share. San Diego had to refund the fines from 12,000 tickets because the for-profit vendor cheated on the signal timing to increase convictions and profit. The city in their greed had dictatorship-like, biased mass trials for red light ticket camera victims. No, I was not one of them. They would mass prosecute a large number of accused collectively with a heavy-handed you-can’t-beat-us-so-just-plead-guilty-then-you-can-pay-and-leave presentation. Otherwise, go sit on the very hard, group W-bench* for the rest of the day (*Arlo Guthrie, Alice’s Restaurant 1997).

Research about cameras discovered an experiment in a Southwestern city, they divided it into quadrants.

In one they installed red light cameras. In another speed limit cameras. In the third both types but in the last none.

Crashes went up in all quadrants except the one without cameras. What happens? Some people become very rigid rule followers, but others drove in a way that they always have felt is safe and efficient. The result is disorder. In normal traffic 50 percent of drivers will be within a 10 mph speed pace. That may or may not be related to the posted speed limit but leaves little incentive to pass or tailgate. When automated enforcement is used, along with unreasonably low speed limits, some driver, but not all, rigidly obey; others get impatient and take chances. At traffic lights, rear-end crashes go up because some drivers panic stop for a yellow light when the experienced driver behind them knows there is still plenty of time.

Ask yourself why we obey traffic laws. If your answer was, “So I don’t get a ticket,” mark it wrong. We obey the laws to ensure the smooth, safe flow of traffic. If we all follow the same protocols, (lawful or maybe not) we minimize conflict and all get where we’re going safely and efficiently. When arbitrary constraints are imposed conflict is created and bad things happen.

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If we really want to reduce intersection conflict, add a countdown feature to the yellow phase like they do in some other countries. Set speed limits that are consistent with how most people drive, and make it a violation to obstruct traffic unnecessarily. Get really tough on impaired drivers, because they are the cause of most crashes.

Ken Obenski is a forensic engineer, now safety and freedom advocate in South Kona. He writes a biweekly column for West Hawaii Today. Send feedback to obenskik@gmail.com.