Study: Red Light Cameras Ineffective, Cause More Accidents

A Chicago Tribune study suggests that the city's red light camera system, intended to make roads safer, are causing more accidents resulting in injury than before.

Study: Red Light Cameras Ineffective, Cause More Accidents

It would be a major understatement to say that traffic cameras are a contentious issue here in the United States. It's no fun getting a ticket in the mail for driving through an intersection when the light was yellow. There's something that feels unfair or unknowable about these soulless citations. Yet, despite the frustration (and the fine), you can always at least say to yourself, "well, this ticket sucks but at least our roads are safer with these cameras in place."


Well... not so fast, says The Chicago Tribune. The newspaper recently commissioned a major study to investigate Chicago's red light camera system after the mayor's office released some curious statistics supporting its effectiveness. The study, released earlier this week, suggests not only that the mayor's office released spurious numbers to defend the cameras but that the system as a whole is actually making Chicago intersections less safe.

Megan Geuss of Ars Technica explains:

"According to the Tribune, the authors of the study found a statistically significant, but still smaller, reduction in angle and turning injury crashes by 15 percent, as well as 'a statistically significant increase of 22 percent in rear-end injury collisions.' Overall, there was 'a non-significant increase of 5 percent in the total number of injury crashes' that happened at intersections with red light cameras when comparing the injury crashes that occurred there before and after the cameras were present.

On a more granular level, the researchers found that there were no safety benefits from cameras that are installed at intersections where there have already been few crashes with injuries, and occasionally, there was evidence that red light cameras actually increased injury crashes at such intersections. 'When intersections experiencing fewer than 4 injury crashes per year are considered, there is a significant increase in all crashes by 19 percent after the installation of RLCs,' the Tribune study found."

That's a pretty damning report for a system that, according to Geuss, has already been embroiled in scandal. And then there's the fact that traffic cameras in cities across the country are huge sources of revenue for local governments. Take Washington D.C. as an example. A report in September noted that the city would experience a budget imbalance because traffic camera revenue wouldn't be nearly as much as in previous years:

"The city expected to collect $93.7 million through automated traffic enforcement in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, but as of the end of August, the cameras had generated only $26.1 million, according to preliminary cash reports issued by [CFO Jeffrey S.] DeWitt’s office."

That's tens of millions of dollars in traffic citations that would disappear overnight if these cameras went away. You can probably put 2 and 2 together here and see the major conflict of interest. Here's Geuss again:

"The Tribune noted that the red light camera program has raised more than $500 million off of the $100 tickets since 2002."

If more reports surface that suggest traffic cameras aren't making streets safer, will local governments really be willing to give up all that cash? One Chicago alderman quoted in the Tribune piece argues that the cameras exist solely to leech revenue and nothing more. Geuss goes on to point out that thousands of drivers in Chicago have been cited erroneously by the system. The lights were probably yellow.

So what's the takeaway here? These systems are controversial, they may be ineffective, and they're total cash cows. But push is going to come to shove sooner or later in Chicago, D.C., and other cities across the country. It'll be fascinating to watch when it does.

Have you ever been cited by a traffic camera? Was it an error? Let us know in the comments below how you feel about these systems.

Read more at Ars Technica

Photo credit: trekandshoot / Shutterstock

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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Credit: Pixabay
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Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
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