Bike in Philly

A recent report on CBS Philly about red light cameras on the Boulevard — and, specifically, one red light camera at Red Lion Road and the Boulevard — is the latest in a series of media stories around the country to claim red light cameras at intersections actually cause more injurious crashes than they prevent. 

But the story is flawed. Not only has data proven, time and again, that red light cameras save lives. 

Not only does the local news story rely on out-of-date data to make its point.

But it focuses on a single intersection when the full context of the red light camera issue shows cameras to be working well.

Before getting into the nitty gritty, know this: I often go back and forth as to whether to respond to media stories on this blog. Not just because it takes a lot of time I often don’t have, but because I used to be a full-time journalist and know what it feels like to be dragged on the web over something I spent a lot of time working on. It sucks for sure. I also don’t think we should be spending much time on red light cameras, because in the long run, cameras are only a temporary fix for the much larger, more important issue of re-engineering bad roads like Roosevelt Boulevard.

Nevertheless, it’s worth pointing out what about the CBS story is misleading, and what the facts actually are. Let’s start at the beginning.

Claim: “City and state transportation officials are defending their decision to maintain red-light cameras at an intersection in Northeast Philadelphia, despite a state report that links the cameras there to an increase in injuries.”

This is the first line of the CBS Philly story. To “link” these two things together (red light cameras and crashes) is technically true, but also a vague way of allowing the viewer to come to their own conclusion about the cause of the crashes. Claiming the cameras and crashes are “linked” implies the installation of red light cameras actually caused the incidents.

But did they? That’s not clear. It stands to reason they did not, because injurious crashes on the whole over the time period studied, where cameras were installed, fell.

But, over a five year period after the red light camera was installed at Red Lion and Roosevelt Boulevard, the pure number of crashes increased from 73 to 125. CBS doesn’t give a reason as to why that happened. Distracted driving? Increase in DUIs? More cars on the road? Who knows!

But they did get into several contextual issues, including letting someone say, unchallenged, that cameras are a “taxation by citation scheme.”

There may be an explanation as to what went on with Red Lion/the Boulevard, though, which I will get to at the bottom of this post.

Claim: According to the report, the result suggests that red-light cameras are “not the solution to this intersection’s safety challenges and that other measures are required.” But Eyewitness News discovered the cameras are still operational.

Red light cameras are not “the solution” to any particular problem. Literally no one said they were. They have been proven to bring down fatalities where tried — and, overall, the PennDOT report CBS cites says the cameras along the Boulevard have been successful in doing that — but the implication that because cameras are not “the” solution, they should stop operations, is absurd. 

To their credit, CBS says overall crashes are down where the red light cameras have been installed. But in the reporting on the single intersection where crashes have gone up, the thinking seems to be that red light cameras are the single piece of each intersection which decides whether or not crashes occur. In actuality, they’re a single tool which can be used for increased safety. That’s it.

Secondly, it’s worth noting that the 2017 report doesn’t say the cameras should be removed; just that they are “not the solution” to this problem. So using this quote before then claiming you “discovered” the camera is still operational are two separate issues.

Claim: Last year alone, Philadelphia’s red-light cameras netted $14.9 million. Officials say that’s additional money for safer roads. But others claim it’s a city cash grab. The National Motorists Association is a lobbying group that opposes red-light cameras. “It really is a taxation by citation scheme perpetrated by the city to make money,” said Shelia Dunn with the NMA.

Reporters know that if they want an organization to tell them drivers should be able to drive however they want, without consequence, they can send an email to the National Motorists Association. As I’ve noted on here before, the NMA have gone so far as to defend hit-and-run drivers who kill people. Quoting them as experts is weird.

The goal of all automated enforcement programs is to make no money. And the money that is generated by the program goes into street safety programs which are supposed to help that first part (about eventually making no money) come true. 

Anyway, why didn’t CBS speak to the families of victims who’ve been killed on the Boulevard? Twenty-one people were killed on that road in 2018, alone! It is often one of the deadliest roads in the state, any expert can tell you that interventions are focused there for that very reason. There’s no conspiracy.

Claim: The Data

The main statistic that traffic crashes increased 71 percent at Red Lion Road and Roosevelt Boulevard is technically true, but highly misleading. Why? Because the year before the cameras were installed (2004) and the year they were installed (2005) both seem to be data outliers at that particular intersection. In 2004, crashes along the corridor were much lower than normal, and in 2005, they were much higher than normal. 

Looking at more recent crash statistics via the PennDOT Crash , in context, shows crashes are actually on their way down. As first pointed out by Ben She of 5th Square, a closer look at the data shows injurious crashes at Red Lion and the Boulevard are on a downward trajectory. Additionally, the 2017 PennDOT report CBS “exposed” this week looks at old data, since the camera was installed in 2005.

Here is the full Red Lion/Boulevard data between 2000 and 2018:

Bike in Philly

A chart showing total crashes at Red Lion Road and the Boulevard, via Ben She

As is easy to see in this chart, a full understanding of crashes at this intersection show a downward trajectory of total crashes, making the whole story moot.

That said…

Red light cameras are not perfect. We all wish they didn’t need to exist. In a perfect world there would be no violations. There would also be no reason for them, either, because police interactions would not, too often, result in negative interactions with citizens. We support red light automated enforcement and automated speed enforcement as safety tools because, in part, they do not discriminate. 

Long term, though, we support the Roosevelt Boulevard Route for Change program, which will re-engineer the Boulevard to make it an easier road to navigate and make it safer for all road users.

That project is still long term (10-50 years) project. In the meantime, we have short-term solutions that are proving to (slowly) make changes and save peoples’ lives.

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