On November 9, 2009, investigative news reporter David Goldstein of the local CBS affiliate here in Los Angeles aired an expose’ on the city’s photo red light (PRL) enforcement program. The report showed that contrary to claims by the LAPD, at intersections with red light cameras accidents actually increased rather than decreased. In response, the LAPD prepared its own study. Not surprisingly, in this report by the LAPD to the L.A. City council, the LAPD claimed that the statistics used by CBS (which were provided by the LAPD) were flawed. In fact, in one section of the report is the following statement:
From 2004 through 2006, which was prior to the installation of the cameras, there were nine reported traffic fatalities, five of which were red light related that occurred at the current PRL intersections. It should be noted that there have been no red light-related fatalities at any of the intersections since April 2006 when the first cameras were activated.
Months later, in June 2010, when the City Council was debating whether or not to go out to bid on a new photo enforcement system, these same representatives from the LAPD advocated that the program not only be continued, but expanded. Their testimony included virtually the identical claim that appears in their report.
This statement is clearly intended to suggest that had photo enforcement been present, the five fatalities that occurred prior to the installation of the enforcement cameras would not have occurred and that the current system is preventing fatalities. A number of city council members seemed quite impressed with this statistic. However, on further analysis, it is clear that the above statement is misleading, and possibly intentionally so.
At the invitation of Sgt. Matt McWillie, head of the PRL Program, I reviewed the accident reports on the five fatality accidents the LAPD claims occurred prior to the installation of the current photo enforcement system. My analysis appears below and as you’ll see, none of these accidents were of the type that could reasonably be expected to be prevented by photo enforcement and therefore can’t be used as an argument for the installation of a red-light cameras. In fact, two of the five accidents were clearly not even red-light related.
Details of Fatal Accidents Used to Justify the LAPD Safety Claims
Accident #1 – 1/21/2004 Victory Blvd. and Laurel Canyon
Accident was caused by DUI, not a driver trying to beat the red light. Also, at the time of the accident, this intersection was being enforced with a photo red-light system administered by the previous vendor, ATS. This was not a fatality that occurred “prior to PRL enforcement”, but rather a fatality that occurred during PRL enforcement with a prior system. Furthermore, as this type of accident makes clear, photo enforcement cannot prevent crashes caused by drunk drivers. Unquestionably, the red-light camera had no effect on whether this drunk driver ran the red light, as is the case with virtually all serious collisions that occur when drivers enter the intersection well into the red phase due to impairment, distraction or fatigue. This accident cannot be included in the “before” statistics as it was caused by a drunk driver and occurred at an intersection that was being photo enforced with a red-light camera.
Accident #2 – 2/9/2004 Western/MLK
Accident was caused by a pedestrian under the influence of drugs j-walking a bicycle across the street late at night. Furthermore, the accident occurred 33 feet beyond the intersection, not at the intersection itself. Witnesses stated the driver entered the intersection on yellow. This was not an accident caused by a red light runner. LAPD stated that they included this as “red-light related”, because they believed that “it was possible” that the driver sped up to make it through the intersection before the light turned red, although they had no direct evidence for that assumption and the bicyclist was deemed at fault for the accident. Therefore, this accident cannot be included in the “before” statistics as it did not occur within the intersection and was not caused by red light running but rather by a pedestrian j-walking. Photo enforcement would have had no effect on preventing this accident.
Accident #3 – 6/23/2005 Beverly/Western
Pedestrian was struck in the crosswalk by a sanitation truck making a right turn from Beverly onto Western. The pedestrian was crossing Western. Witnesses claimed the truck had a green light. This is the logical conclusion as the pedestrian also would have had a green light to cross Western, accounting for his presence in the crosswalk. This accident was most likely caused by the truck driver failing to yield to the pedestrian possibly due to an obstructed view from the garbage truck. The truck driver was cited for failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk, not a red light violation. This accident cannot be included in the “before” statistics as it was not caused by red light running. Photo enforcement would have made no difference in preventing this accident.
Accident #4 – 3/5/2005 Venice/Grand
A sixteen-year-old driver ran the light long after it was red. According to statements of those involved, this accident was caused by driver inattention. This accident cannot be included in the “before” statistics as it was caused primarily by a distracted, inexperienced driver, not intentional red light running. Photo enforcement has no effect on preventing this type of accident.
Accident #5 – 4/6/2006 Manchester/Figueroa
Accident occurred just after midnight. The driver claimed she was tired and didn’t remember whether the light was red. This accident was most likely caused by driver fatigue. This accident cannot be included in the “before” statistics as it was caused by a fatigued driver, not intentional red light running. Photo enforcement has no effect on preventing this type of accident.
When the details of each accident are considered, it becomes clear to any impartial observer that using these five accidents to suggest that the City’s photo red-light program has saved lives is not intellectually honest. For example, regardless of the fact that the LAPD was fully aware that the fatality at Victory and Laurel Canyon occurred at an intersection where a red-light camera was in use at the time of the collision, the LAPD chose to categorize this accident as a “before the cameras” fatality. It was not. It was a “before the current set of cameras” fatality. An unbiased study would never have included this accident in the “before” statistical group and no reasonable argument can be made for doing so since there was a red-light camera in operation and the accident was caused by a drunk driver.
In regards to the accident involving the sanitation truck, it’s extremely unlikely that a red light violation occurred. The evidence in the accident report strongly suggests that the light was green at the time of the incident. The pedestrian and the garbage truck were both initially traveling in the same direction and it is unlikely they both ignored a red signal. Moreover, neither the driver nor the pedestrian was cited for violating the red. What most likely occurred was that the pedestrian stepped into the crosswalk on a green light and the truck driver began his right turn at approximately the same moment and just didn’t see him. An unfortunate event, but not the type of accident that can be prevented using red light cameras. When we asked why the LAPD included this accident, the officer who compiled the statistics responded that, similar to the bicyclist accident at Western and MLK, he did so because “there was a chance the light might have been red”. “Might have been” and “it was possible” aren’t the proper criteria to use when deciding whether or not to include a particular data set in a before and after study. Since the LAPD knows that there is no evidence that a red light violation occurred, neither this accident nor the bicyclist accident should have been used to suggest that red-light cameras have prevented fatalities at photo enforced intersections, yet the LAPD continues to do so.
Finally, the two accidents caused by driver fatigue and distraction occurred well into the red phase, providing further evidence that the most dangerous red-light running accidents are not due to drivers trying to beat the light and thus can’t be remedied by installing photo enforcement. The photo enforcement approach to curtailing the incidence of red-light running is solely intended to influence those drivers who willfully ignore or try to beat the red light. No one has ever suggested that red light cameras should be installed to prevent accidents caused by fatigued or distracted drivers. If the LAPD had intended to provide an honest analysis of the photo red light program, they certainly wouldn’t have included accidents caused by distraction or fatigue.
But even if accidents or fatalities have decreased at photo enforced intersections, the reduction was likely not due to the presence of red light cameras. Concurrent with the installation of the current photo red-light system, the yellow signal timing at all photo red-light intersections was increased to comply with the minimum requirements set out in California law. In addition, the LADOT instituted an all-red phase at PRL intersections as well. This, more than any other factor would likely account for any increase in safety at the city’s 32 photo enforced intersections.
So, you might ask, what incentive does the LAPD have to promote the city’s photo red light program using bogus statistics? The LAPD has been pushing red light cameras for many years. They have invested a great deal of funding, man hours, and public relations good will on the program. To be shown that, after more than a decade of costs not only to the city but to the hundreds of thousand LA drivers who have had millions of dollars extracted from them, the entire program has been for naught would be a public relations disaster. Furthermore, the department has been touting red light cameras as a “safety program”. Acknowledging that their efforts have not made the public any safer would be a bitter pill to swallow. Even worse would be the admission that the driving public is now less safe, both as a direct consequence of this program and due to the lost opportunity to have implemented engineering measures that actually would have made our roads safer.
I want to make it clear, though, that I’m a strong supporter of the police in general. The vast majority of police officers do this thankless job with distinction and valor. But when the police become advocates for public policy, especially a policy that affects hundreds of thousands of citizens and costs the public millions of dollars annually, they have an obligation to be as accurate and unbiased as possible.
The police officers involved in the photo red light enforcement program may believe that they really are making the public safer. so to them, fudging on the numbers is ok. And this is why those with an inherent bias or vested interest in the outcome of a statistical analysis should never be the ones doing the study. There’s just too much temptation to cook the books.
Edit – Since this post was written, the LAPD has continued to use this bogus claim of preventing fatalities at photo enforced intersections both to the Police Commission and to the media.
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