Thinking about red light cameras

red light intersection western ave

Talk to a lot of people in Albany about red light running and you'll probably get many stories about drivers blatantly blowing through lights. It is, anecdotally at least, a pervasive and persistent problem.

In an attempt to address the issue, the city of Albany is considering an ordinance that would allow it to place red light cameras at 20 intersections around the city. It's an interesting topic because the situation surrounding red light cameras ends up being a bit more complicated that you might at first think -- and because of the way the issue is pushing a lot of buttons for people. Opinions seem to span a range of something like "yes, the city needs this" to "no, this is a very bad idea."

Here's a walk through of the issue...

The plan on the table

In short, here's the plan on the table:

+ The ordinance would allow the city of Albany to contract with a private company to install red light cameras at up to 20 intersections in the city.

+ A $50 civil violation would be assessed to the owners of vehicles caught by the cameras, and sent through the mail. (There are a few exceptions to the owner being on the hook for the fine. Among them: that the vehicle was stolen or that it was being driven "without the consent of the owner.")

+ Each potential violation caught by a camera would be reviewed by an Albany police officer before being issued, according to APD deputy chief Brendan Cox, who spoke at an Albany Common Council committee meeting about the topic this week. [TU]

The ordinance is embedded below.

Albany Proposed Red Light Camera Ordinance

For safety

The Sheehan administration, supporters on the Common Council such as ordinance sponsor Leah Golby, and the police department have pitched red light cameras as a safety measure.

Cox said that traffic safety is frequently the #1 issue that comes up at meetings with neighborhood groups, and it's become a major focus of the department's strategic plan. And while red light cameras wouldn't address all traffic safety issues -- engineering, education, and overall enforcement were cited as key components -- he said they would be one tool to use.

"We do believe this will make it safer to travel the streets of the city," Cox told the committee.

Toward arguing the case that cameras would be first and foremost a safety measure -- and not a revenue measure -- Cox said the city would not allow the camera system contractor to control the city's traffic signals, nor would it allow the contractor to adjust the length of yellow lights (currently at least 3 seconds at all intersections, and 4 seconds at intersections with updated equipment). And he said the department wouldn't mind if the cameras reduced the city's revenue from traffic violations because that would indicate that fewer people were breaking the rules.

But even if safety is the primary motivating goal for the installation of these cameras, they will presumably also generate revenue. If the 20 cameras each catch three violations per day, that's gross revenue of approximately $1.1 million.

But even if safety is the primary motivating goal for the installation of these cameras, they will presumably also generate revenue. If the 20 cameras each catch three violations per day, that's gross revenue of approximately $1.1 million. (The city wouldn't actually make that total for reasons that include fees paid to the camera contractor.) And while that's not a huge amount of money -- it's only about half of one percent of the city's total budget -- it is something.

So... To some degree this is a question of whether you take what people are saying at face value. And absent evidence definitively pointing to there being some ulterior motive beyond safety, we don't see why engagement on the issue shouldn't start with the safety angle.

Another question prompted by the question of motivation: Does the motivation actually matter? If the administration really does want them for revenue (the mayor has said that's not the case) and the cameras end up making the streets safer in the process by reducing the number of red lights run, does the revenue motivation somehow irretrievably poison the whole thing?

crosswalk button reflection

For the money

It looks like red light camera skeptics in the city roughly break into two (not-mutually exclusive) groups: those who say the cameras are actually about revenue generation, and those who say the cameras are an improper use of governmental power. So, let's talk about the it's-for-money angle, which we see as potentially being at least two points of view rolled into one.

One point of view: These cameras are inextricably tied to revenue generation, and where there's money there will be interests only concerned with money who don't have the city's best interests in mind. During his remarks at the committee meeting this week, council member Frank Commisso Jr said he had been contacted by a lobbyist for the traffic camera industry in the very early stages of the city's effort to get the state legislature to empower the city to have cameras. Commisso cited this contact as evidence that the industry is actively at work behind the scenes trying to open up new municipalities as potential customers. And councilman Judd Krasher said he believed that private companies are playing on the city's public safety concerns to sell systems that, in his opinion, do not work and can potentially include onerous contracts.

Another point of view: These cameras mean revenue and money corrupts. This was one of the arguments put forth by Jesse Calhoun during the public comment period of the meeting. (Calhoun ran for mayor as a Republican during the last election, and is currently running for state Assembly.) And in this thinking, if the city gets attached to revenue from the cameras it might be tempted to implement policies that don't necessarily improve safety -- but do keep the money flowing in.

There are multiple examples from other places to feed these concerns. The most notable is in Chicago, where the messy situation surrounding that city's camera system has prompted a federal investigation and allegations of corruption. [Chicago Tribune]

So... Questions prompted by these viewpoints: Can the city be a sufficiently circumspect buyer of one of these systems? Does it want to get involved with contractors that have, let's say, complicated track records? And will it be willing to walk away from potential revenue if generating that revenue doesn't mean an increase in safety?

Civil liberties

The other major opposition to red light cameras is rooted in concerns about civil liberties. And this opposition breaks into at least two parts: issues with the law and with surveillance.

The law: Red light cameras in other places have been subject to a variety of legal challenges. Some of them -- like challenges questioning whether a municipality has the power to impose such a system -- don't apply here (the state legislature OK'ed Albany's ability to do so earlier this year). But other challenges have questioned fundamental aspects of automated camera systems -- such as who actually is "the accuser" in a red light camera violation (and can that "accuser" be faced in court), and whether photos are inadmissible hearsay evidence. [Miami Herald] [LA Weekly]

In at least one prominent example, in California, the state's high court has ruled against the who's-the-accuser and hearsay arguments. [Ars Technica]

Surveillance: Any time a government talks about setting up cameras in public, it's going to raise some concerns about surveillance -- not just because of what the government is planning to do, but what it could do.

Cox, the APD deputy chief, said the cameras would be activated to capture video only when the system detected a driver possibly running a red light. So the system wouldn't be continuously capturing video of the surrounding area. Though Cox also didn't rule out the possibility of using camera video to assist investigations of major crimes.

There is longstanding concern among civil liberties groups about "mission creep" with surveillance technologies. And already law enforcement agencies are using mobile license plate readers to gather huge amounts of data about where vehicles are sighted.

There is longstanding concern among civil liberties groups about "mission creep" with surveillance technologies. And already law enforcement agencies are using mobile license plate readers to gather huge amounts of data about where vehicles are sighted. So it's not really a stretch to think that in the not-too-distance future tech like red light cameras could be adapted for similar purposes. (And the city of Albany already has surveillance cameras in some spots around the city, so it wouldn't be a totally new concept for the city.) [ACLU] [Syracuse Post-Standard]

Another issue: Common Council president Carolyn McLaughlin raised the question of potential justice issues in where cameras would be placed, that certain neighborhoods could be unfairly over targeted. That's an important issue to keep in mind and data transparency (see below) could go some way to addressing those concerns.

Perhaps unexpected pro-camera civil liberties angle: One of the speakers during the public comment period at the committee meeting, Nadine Lemmon, brought up an interesting pro-camera argument: An automated red light camera system doesn't profile people. If working correctly, a camera system would presumably flag violations regardless of who's beyond the wheel and what kind of vehicle that person is driving. And in that way an automated system could potentially be the fairest way to go about tagging people for violations.

So... Are people OK with cameras potentially being used for broader crime prevention and surveillance purposes? Could the ordinance for Albany's system be written in a way that prevents the system from being used for purposes other than red light running in the future? And would that prohibition be a sufficient safeguard for civil liberties concerns?

Do they work?

That's a key question. And the answer is... maybe. Supporters and opponents both can cite studies that back their contentions that the cameras do -- or don't -- work.

A collection of research gathered by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety cites studies indicating that red light cameras reduced the number of violations in municipalities studied. And the cameras also appear to have reduced the number of dangerous front-to-side crashes (the "T-bone") -- though there are indications the cameras also prompted a smaller increase in rear-end crashes (presumably from people jamming on the brakes suddenly to avoid going through a red). [IIHS]

Red light camera skeptics point to other examples where the effectiveness of the cameras appears less clear. A prominent example: A 2005 Washington Post review of DC data concluded that intersections with cameras didn't perform any better in terms of crashes than intersections without cameras. [Washington Post]

A legislative analyst for AAA, Alec Slatky, was at the Common Council committee meeting this week to talk about his org's research on the red light camera issue. And he offered qualified support for the devices. From a AAA report Slatky provided the committee (embedded below):

The preponderance of the evidence leads to four primary conclusions:
+ Red light cameras have the potential to reduce the deadliest crashes.
+ The success of red light cameras varies significantly across jurisdictions and intersections.
+ The most effective red light camera programs are accompanied by education (i.e. photo-enforced signs) and engineering (i.e. lengthening amber times or using an "all-red" phase).
+ Red light cameras are susceptible to misuse and abuse.
These four conclusions form the basis of AAA New York State's position on red light cameras: AAA New York State supports red light camera programs that are supplemented with engineering measures, educational campaigns, and traditional law enforcement, provided that a thorough evaluation of such programs is regularly conducted and disclosed to the public.

Slatky also said that public concerns about cameras being used for revenue could be addressed in part by dedicating revenue from cameras to traffic safety and engineering purposes.

AAA Review of Red Light Camera Programs in New York State

So... There's good research that indicates the cameras can make intersections safer. But that hasn't been the case everywhere, in part because of how the cameras have been deployed.

Data

The red light camera issue has two big data questions -- before and after.

Before: If red light cameras are to be most effective in Albany, the city will have to place them at intersections that have the highest need and are most conducive to camera monitoring (for example, because of intersection design).

Brendan Cox, the APD assistant chief, presented data at the meeting indicating that roughly 11 percent of traffic violations issued last year in the city were for red light running. And he said the department will be sifting through its incidence data to determine problem intersections. It will then pull individual incident reports to see if the problems at those intersections are due to red light running. That's a not-small job. And it's understandable the city didn't want to dive into it before it knows it's getting the OK to use the cameras.

Right now, red light running is one of those things "everyone knows" is a problem in Albany -- talk to people who spend a significant amount of time on city streets and many of them will have multiple stories about drivers blowing though solid red lights. (We know we do.) And while these sorts of "everyone knows" facts are a sign that there very well could be a problem, it's not a substitute for being able to cite hard evidence about the incidence of red light running.

But we think the absence of that data has made arguing the case for cameras harder because officials can't definitively say that red light running is actually a problem. Right now, red light running is one of those things "everyone knows" is a problem in Albany -- talk to people who spend a significant amount of time on city streets and many of them will have multiple stories about drivers blowing though solid red lights. (We know we do.) And while these sorts of "everyone knows" facts are a sign that there very well could be a problem, it's not a substitute for being able to cite hard evidence about the incidence of red light running.

Additionally, this lack of research prevents officials from being able to point to specific intersections and specific data in support of their plan. Having that information would take red light cameras from this sort of vague possibility (20 cameras somewhere in the city) to something more concrete (a camera at that intersection where you saw a driver almost hit the guy and his dog).

After: Slatky, the AAA analyst, emphasized the importance of municipalities being transparent and specific about data from red light cameras. And on that issue, we couldn't agree more. The Albany ordinance includes provisions for regularly reporting data. And this data should be posted online and made easily accessible.

So... Is it possible for the city to engage in some formalized research -- maybe with the help of a local college -- to study the incidence of red light running around the city? And can the city speed up its review of incidence and intersection data so we can all have a better sense of where the cameras would go?

Albany 2030 Road Diet example
A example of a "road diet," like the one proposed for Madison Ave. / image: Albany 2030

Is this the best treatment?

If red light running truly is a problem in the city -- and a lot of people have a sense that it is -- this whole discussion boils down to one question: Are red light cameras, with all their potential complications, the best way of treating the problem? Or is the city better off addressing the problem in other ways?

Councilman Joe Igoe brought up this issue during the committee meeting, arguing that the best solution might be for the APD to increase the number of officers dedicated to traffic safety. And Jesse Calhoun, the Assembly candidate, pointed to engineering measures such as the proposed Madison Ave Road Diet as a potentially more effective solution.

Of course, it's not like the city must only pick one of these approaches. But everything has a cost. And the city owes it to itself to consider the total cost (time/money/potential complications) of its options.

Comments

I can see the perks of the Madison Ave. road diet and, as a nearby resident, the perceived gentler pace of traffic is appealing to me. However, the practicality just doesn't seem to be there. Between the colleges, the grocery stores, the rush-hour traffic and the continually developing restaurant / bar scene, I just can't imagine forcing all of those people to operate EFFICIENTLY in a single-file line. Add in the buses and the problem seems to compound.

As a cyclist, the idea of dedicated bike lanes is always nice. However, I would much rather jump a street or two over onto one of the one-ways and not have to worry about cars coming at me from as many angles.

Speaking of cyclists, can red-light cameras "catch" them too? I've never thought about that until now...

I do like the idea of red light cameras being deployed at busy, and what I'll call public / prominent street corners (State + Central/Washington, Lark + Madison, etc) and PUBLICIZING their existence at those locations. If you know they're there, chances are you'll be extra cautious at those intersection, which ultimately is the goal to begin with, right? If I know a police car regularly hangs out at a certain spot on the Northway, I'll slow down when approaching that area every time, no matter what. I'm hoping that mentality is what would develop by knowing of the existence and location of red-light cameras.

They've had them in Arizona for years. When I lived there, I hated the idea and hated it even more when I was caught, twice. There's something endlessly creepy about being mailed a photo-ticket of yourself driving. BUT...

It stopped me from not only speeding, but from trying to slide through those yellow-ish red lights. I started to think with my wallet. When you realize that waiting the extra 30 seconds will save you an automatic $200 and maybe a trip to court, things change.

Hit people where it hurts and they will start to drive safely.

I feel that most of the problem you see with people running red lights in the City of Albany could be avoided if they just made the yellow lights longer than 3 seconds and better coordinated the lights so that a person isn't hitting ten red lights in a row if they have to stop at one light. It often seems that people drive pretty recklessly racing down major roads like Washington or Western because they feel like they are going to be stuck in an endless series of red lights if they stop at one and since there seems to be little time to actually react and stop if the light is yellow or turning red.

It definitely appears that the overwhelming motivation for these red light cameras is the additional revenue since a few minor mechanical changes to the current lights could likely prevent many people from running red lights (and also more advance green lights at major intersections). I would keep in mind that the rate of people running red lights is often appears to be much lower in larger cities/town throughout upstate NY that don't have red light cameras at all but have more sophisticated traffic light systems with longer yellow light intervals.

I typically run at least one light in the morning and one light in the evening. Most of is because of traffic signals being horribly coordinated. The stretch on Broadway between State and Clinton is really bad (several unconnected lights in a short distance). I had to force my way through the light at Madison and New Scotland on Wednesday morning because of gridlock (I had waited 3 cycles). The lights at State and Dove are not able to detect the presence of cars and inevitably make you wait when there is no one else there. There are also all of the inappropriately located no-right-on-red locations. They redid the lights at Eagle and State this year and amazingly made them worse. The good news there is that they added a pedestrian countdown timer that is visible up State Street so drivers know how fast they have to speed to make the green light.

Red light cameras are a lot like bike sharrows. When city doesn't want to take the time to address an issue, they take some superficial action to quite people down.

I really hope this goes through. No coordination of signals or timing of yellow lights is going to help. Drivers here have a disrespect for others that borders on homicidal. Ending the 12-second grace period at stop lights will do wonders to begin to correct that.

All that said, a road diet for Madison Avenue will also help immensely. Chris Churchill at the TU had a column about this recently and made the great point that it's tough to expect drivers to respect pedestrians when the road is designed in a way that ignores the fact that people outside a car even exist.

In short, cars in this city drastically need to be tamed, and I'm all for every little thing that does so.

First of all, amazingly well written, thought out, and fair article.

One of my main arguments is that some very reputable studies show that not only do Red Light Cameras NOT improve safety but they actually decrease it. Here is a very powerful quote:

“none of the seven studies identified as the best in design and data in the NHTSA's (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s) compendium (Decina et al., 2007) statistically permit concluding RLCs provide a safety benefit. Further, three of the seven studies report increases in injury crashes.”

An Update on Red Light Camera Research: The Need for Federal Standards in the Interest of Public Safety
Barbara Langland-Orban, PhD, John T. Large, PhD, Etienne E. Pracht, PhD

Somehow, I just know that these cameras are going to be placed at intersections like Clinton Ave and Route 9, where the light cycle is so poorly coordinated that the street past the intersection fills up -- and stays filled up -- from one direction, so there's never any room for the other direction to go when the light is green.

The inevitable result is that vehicles from the blocked side pour into the intersection so that they'll actually make forward progress.

Coordinating the lights for traffic flow and installing trips so that you don't spend five minutes waiting at a red light when nobody's coming are two measures that would do far more for traffic safety than these cameras would.

Reading this, I somehow feel that I've landed back in 1995. Just about every city I've lived in around the country has had cameras like the ones proposed - and whether you support them or deride them, they eventually go in. What matters is how they operate in practice, and the means for protesting tickets that may result from malfunctions. Those are issues that Albany may look to other cities to try to figure out.

How about we go back to a cop in the center of every busy intersection directing traffic on a cute little stand like in Bermuda?

I'm all in favor of it as long as the cops who run the red lights without lights on (or those who flip the lights on, go through and flip them off again) get tickets too. but that's never gonna happen.

@JayK-

I don't think your concerns that changing the timing of the lights or extending the yellow lights wouldn't help at all really add up since there seems to be far busier intersections in the suburbs (especially in places like Wolf Rd or Western Ave) where far fewer people run the red lights compared to in the City of Albany. These areas don't seem to have the need to install red light cameras even though they have some of the busiest intersections in the region largely because they seem to have more modern and efficient traffic lights. Even in other cities throughout the area, the need for red light cameras seems less prevalent largely because their yellow light intervals are slightly longer than in Abany.

I feel this whole red light camera effort boils down to the city of Albany being unwilling and/or unable to spend the money to update its traffic light system and would much rather create a new source of revenue instead of spending some money to solve this safety issue more effectively.

The purpose of roads in the suburbs is to move cars quickly. That is not the purpose of roads in the city, where all modes need to function, and cars are much less of a concern. Additionally, those intersections in the suburbs are larger, less complicated in general and with fewer pedestrians. A driver running a red light is simply more likely to be hit by another car there than in Albany. The two types of intersections deserve different treatment, and as I've said, this is just one piece of the desperate need to tame drivers in Albany.

It is about picking whats best; and it is the environment that effects our diving habits over the games of punishments and whatnot. The worse assumption is that everything would be safe if everyone, at all times, followed all the rules; but that is not life and never could be. But the built infrastructure, or engineering as the city calls it; is there, all the time, for everybody using the roads. It was repeated over and over that the cameras are just part of the toolbox; But what exactly is the city investing in better roads? Road diets aren't just cutting a lane out; it can be making the current number of lanes narrower; thus giving people less room, forcing safer driving and the needed space for real bike lanes.
Another strategy I never see here is the idea of expanding the views around courners; The farther we can see someone coming down a perpendicular road, the better all drivers can react, negating the need for lights, signs and the unnecessary stopping with leads people to want to run lights in the circumstances of taking the chance no one is there on the other side of the corner. Rules don't matter to people, the conditions on the road do.

Great insightful article! I buy all the pro-camera arguments!

Dan, I'm curious, what could you possibly do to expand the view around corners? Many bad intersections of the city have buildings right up to the sidewalk.

NYS DOT standard for yellow light length is 3.9 seconds. I'm sure these yellow lights will be shorter.
BTW measuring yellow light length will make a great school science fair project. All you need is a smartphone that can record video!

Great article, which highlights that with any "human" and "technological" system, there will be errors, and a blend of the two can help mitigate the short falls found in one or the other. I think Albany is moving in the right direction on this issue, ameliorating just about every concerned that has been voiced by those crusading against Red Light Cameras.

The Albany PD has a very diverse mission, from general run of the day response issues to more complex missions (e.g. counter-terrorism prevention, inter-municipal aid, etc.) and I think targeted, practical, and limited aid through technology is advisable and prudent given our fair city's fiscal picture. Relying on one (the human) or the other (technology), and not both, is a poor way to protect and serve the public.

For those who still disagree on RLC or are on the fence, I highly recommend your watch this growing library of videos featuring the wild, wild west intersection of Madison meets New Scotland. It is prime for a red light camera to assist the Albany PD in its diverse, monumental mission profile: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCXAgc8g5VlLeZlkCt5s4-Lg

Sorry that I'm late to the party, but I'd like to see several things added to the proposed ordinance:

1. Before a red light camera can be used at an intersection, the signal shall first be bought into conformance with current regulations and state of the practice, including things like yellow time, and the number, size and location of signal heads, etc. Failure to meet state and federal standards for traffic signals shall be an allowable defense.

2. Revenue from the systems shall be used to increase funding for traffic safety improvements, not deposited into the general fund. I'm using the broad legal definition of traffic, meaning anyone using a road or street for travel, not just drivers.

I think these would help resolve many of the objections. Not all, but many.

Chicago (or their contractor) got caught shaving 1/10 of a second off their yellow light phases to increase revenue.

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/chicagos-traffic-lights-make-drivers-see-red-faster/

Considering that this is likely to increase crashes, this is morally if not legally wrong. And it would make a heck of a tort claim if someone can prove they were hurt because of it.

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