Wednesday, Aug 15, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

Tom Walton

Smile, you're on traffic cam

SOMETIMES I wonder whether Ohio's laws on traffic lights say: "Green means go on through. Yellow means hurry up. Red means floor it." That's how it seems when you're sitting at a Toledo intersection, waiting for the light to change, and somebody in a hurry races through on his red.

So we shouldn't be surprised that so many people resent the red-light cameras installed at several major Toledo intersections. Government intrusion at its worst, they say.

But while we have no way to know what almost happened but didn't, lives have been saved in Toledo because most drivers approach the red-light camera intersections more cautiously.

Don't like the cameras? Fine, but don't give me the civil liberties excuse. You are not at liberty to break the law and put at risk the lives of those I love. The driver's license in your wallet or purse is a binding contract to obey the rules of the road. Violate the contract at your peril -- and mine.

The annoyance many people feel at government's presence in our lives is understandable -- up to a point. Decades ago, safety belts were mandated in our cars, and millions of Americans considered it a nuisance. Today the great majority of us reach for the belt without giving it a thought. I won't even turn the ignition key until everybody is belted in.

How many lives were lost before the government required laminated or tempered safety glass in our vehicles?

Later came air bags, and many Americans endured the same period of reluctant adjustment. But air bags save lives, too.

Who doesn't resent the degrading experience of security screening at our airports? But only a fool would argue that such over-the-top security measures are not necessary. If the Transportation Security Administration went away, I know I would never get on another airplane.

We salute and honor our men and women who are government employees sworn to protect us. Yet some of us complain about the TSA officers whose job it is to make sure our flight is safe and uneventful.

Smokers will say the biggest government intrusions in their lives are the bans on smoking in public places. Smokers, of course, are free to accept the known health risks of tobacco consumption, but nonsmokers should not have to run the same risks solely by virtue of their proximity to cigarette smoke.

And so we have government regulations.

People who resent red-light cameras are no doubt the same drivers who zip along the interstates at 15 mph over the speed limit.

How many times have you been passed on a city street by one of these speed demons as he or she races up to the next intersection, even though the light there is red? Invariably they end up having to stop and wait at the light, after burning a little extra gas getting there.

They never seem to understand that at a more moderate speed they would actually get more green lights than red.

The problem with the red-light cameras is that the cities that install them say the whole point is to save lives, yet they come to rely on the revenues that the cameras generate in fines. Toledo has 32 of them, which produced almost $800,000 last year.

As drivers become more aware of where the cameras are, they slow down, they stop, they obey the law. As a result, fewer are caught on camera running the light. Revenues go down.

There's the irony. Several American cities have turned off some or all of their red-light cameras because drivers started paying attention, the intersections became safer, violations diminished, and the cameras became expensive to maintain.

But isn't that supposed to be the objective? If safety truly is the primary motivation, keep the cameras and bear the costs.

Here's another irony. Rear-end crashes often increase at camera intersections, because drivers slam on their brakes at the last instant to avoid running the light and they get hit from behind. But rear-end collisions are not usually as severe or as deadly as the T-bone crashes that occur when a driver disregards the light and hits another car broad-side.

A study released last month by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said Toledo's red-light cameras reduced the city's fatal-crash rate attributable to red-light runners by 39 percent.

The comparison samples were so small it's difficult to quantify the reduction with precision. But common sense suggests that just like seat belts, tempered glass, and air bags, red-light cameras make us more secure in our cars if those who disregard our safety are photographed and fined for their carelessness.

Maybe the best solution is the one that's too expensive: European-style roundabouts. Ann Arbor has installed some. Many other communities have them as well. But the cost of reconfiguring every major American intersection that has a red light would be prohibitive.

Not gonna happen. In the meantime, keep smiling for the cameras.

Thomas Walton is retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.

Contact him at: twalton@theblade.com.

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