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Study: Safety benefits of traffic cameras dubious in San Francisco

When red light and speeding ticket cameras were first available, it must have seemed like a quick and easy solution to a serious public safety issue. Instead of having to improve roadway engineering or hire additional traffic patrol officers, all cities would have to do was install cameras. Even better, the cameras could be installed and monitored by vendors, who could even issue the tickets.

The problem, of course, is that quick and easy solutions often turn out to be slow and difficult in the long run.

Redflex, a major provider of photo enforcement systems, has been plagued by bribery and corruption scandals. As for Xerox, which provides for-profit ticket processing services across the state, things aren't going well, either. The California Supreme Court just ruled that Los Angeles's longstanding parking ticket contract with Xerox is illegal. Even in parking ticket cases, defendants have the right to have their cases tried by a legally authorized state tribunal -- not a profit-making third party.

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency reports no clear safety benefits

Opponents argue that photo enforcement, especially when done by for-profit companies, violates drivers' civil rights. Some supporters of cameras claim they are necessary to reduce the number of devastating broadside collisions in intersections. Would clear evidence if improved safety be enough to overcome the civil liberty concerns? Maybe, but we don't have to wonder.

The safety benefits are not clear. In its annual report, the SFMTA found essentially no evidence that red light cameras improved safety at all.

For one thing, several of the intersections where cameras were installed had no history of broadside collisions. Instead, they seemed to have been chosen for the potential number of red light tickets that could be churned out.

At intersections that did have a history of broadsides, the agency found that the installation of the cameras had a very short-term benefit, at best. In one case the agency called out, broadside collisions leaped immediately from 5 to 9 when the cameras were installed.

The SFMTA doesn't claim that installing the cameras is actually dangerous. Instead, the agency concludes that they make no measurable difference to the safety of the intersection.

What does improve safety, the agency found, is improving the intersection's engineering. Relocating the signal poles, changing them to overhead mast-arm signals where appropriate, installing pedestrian signals and increasing the length of yellow lights were all shown to be effective.

If you get cited by a traffic camera, don't give up. Real help is available.

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