AAA New York’s Red-Light Camera “Study”: Bogus, Flimsy and Dangerous

For an organization that claims to be in favor of red light cameras, AAA New York has a funny way of showing its support.

“In concept, we believe in red light cameras,” said spokesperson Robert Sinclair. But over the weekend, backed only by scant anecdotal evidence, the group claimed that traffic signals with red light cameras in New York City had yellow lights that were too short, and called for changes to how the cameras are used.

Next time it could be your child who is hurt or killed by a driver trying to beat a red. Photo: New York Post

After receiving complaints about short yellow lights at specific locations, AAA surveyed eight of New York City’s 12,460 signalized intersections: three in Manhattan, four in Queens and one in Brooklyn. The group found four intersections that it says had yellow signals lasting less than three seconds. “It wasn’t really a study,” said Sinclair. “It was an ad-hoc survey.”

The city has cameras at 150 intersections. Of the eight intersections it observed, AAA claimed that four signals were up to 15 percent shorter than the usual three seconds. DOT called the claims “bogus,” saying that two of those intersections don’t even have active red light cameras, and that the other two are properly timed.

The narrow scope and anecdotal nature of its “study” notwithstanding, the whole affair got lots of media attention for AAA New York. Already, the Post is profiling “victims” of red light cameras and telling readers to “floor it” whenever they see a yellow light.

Unlike some other states, New York does not set a legal requirement for the length of a yellow signal, which AAA says is a problem. “Whatever it takes — if it’s a city law, if it’s a state law, there need to be some standards put into place,” said Sinclair. The Institute for Transportation Engineers provides a standard that DOTs may use, but it isn’t followed by all jurisdictions.

One issue is whether yellow lights should be set based on the speed limit or the 85th percentile, the speed at which most traffic is traveling. Often, due to driver speeding and road design, the 85th percentile speed — the standard endorsed by the ITE — is above the speed limit. “Everybody’s driving above 30. That’s the reality,” said Sinclair.

Regardless of the tenths of a second that separate AAA and DOT, red light running kills, and cameras have had an impact.

Red light running killed 8,845 people in the United States between 2000 and 2009 — that’s one in ten intersection fatalities, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Nearly two-thirds of those killed in the U.S. by red light runners in 2009 were occupants of other vehicles, passengers in the red light runners’ vehicles, pedestrians or cyclists, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Studies have shown that red light cameras have improved roadway safety, even with the potential for a slight increase in rear-end crashes, which tend to be less severe than the types of crashes that camera enforcement reduces. “Several summary reviews conclude that [red light cameras] reduce overall injury crashes by as much as 25 percent,” said a report published by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Red light running has fallen faster in cities with the cameras than in cities without them, preventing 159 deaths between 2004 and 2008 in 14 major U.S. cities. If the cameras had been installed in all cities with a population over 200,000, 815 lives would have been saved in the same period, according to the IIHS.

In Texas, red light cameras have reduced crashes by 11 percent, with right-angle (or “t-bone”) crashes, the most severe type, reduced by 32 percent, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.

In 2010, at just 150 of 12,460 intersections, New York City traffic cameras caught a reported 1,053,268 motorists in the act of running a red. As we wrote last August, that figure represents an untold number of unpenalized violations, and approximately 1,053,268 motorists who, if not for the cameras, would have otherwise gotten by with putting other street users at risk. Nevertheless, the Post described City Council transportation committee chair James Vacca as “troubled” by AAA’s reported findings, which the paper falsely played up as an ongoing concern.

Time and again, actual studies show that when drivers follow the speed limit and stop at lights, lives are saved. Perhaps this driver said it best when CBS 2 asked if the red light cameras cause her to slow down: “Yeah, of course. I don’t want tickets.”