Collusion and collision

I really hate it when I find an important Philadelphia news item going largely unreported in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

But according to this report in a journal devoted to driving issues, "accidents have increased 10-20 percent since red light cameras began issuing tickets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania."

Why have I seen nothing about this in the Philadelphia Inquirer? As Philadelphia's only major daily, doesn't it have a sense of responsibility to report issues affecting the safety of its readers? (Especially right now, when a huge public transit strike is literally forcing commuters out of the buses and trolleys and into their cars to face what may be the worst gridlock in Philadelphia history....)

I mean, I'm a subscriber to the Inquirer and a loyal daily reader. Why should I have to discover this by reading Glenn Reynolds' links?

It's probably also worth asking why Glenn is doing a better job of reporting the story than the Inquirer, too, but I don't want to rub it in. I know that Knight-Ridder has fallen on bad times lately, but I don't think this explains the problem. More likely, I suspect, is a reluctance to "rock the boat" with the powers that be in the Philadelphia city government -- which desperately needs money.

But should that be at the cost of public safety?

The underlying circumstances strike me as outrageous. Not only has there been an increase in accidents, but the outfit which builds and supplies the cameras can also be fairly said to have built and supplied the legislation and the politicians too:

The Philadelphia Daily News explained the circumstances surrounding the film provision. Dallas-based ACS is the largest U.S. camera contractor and is one of the few that have not yet converted to all-digital systems. ACS used a lot of money to influence the legislature, paying S.R. Wojdak & Associates $175,910 in lobbying fees. Stephen Wojdak just happens to be a lobbyist for the city of Philadelphia and raised money for the mayor's campaign.

ACS itself gave $55,000 to the mayor, $5000 to the legislator who wrote the camera legislation and $75,000 to Governor Rendell.

ACS already had made nearly $40 million from existing contracts with the city, and the president of ACS State & Local Solutions is a former consultant for Philadelphia's Parking Authority. The company's senior VP is also a former managing director for the city. The provision was designed to virtually assure that ACS would land the contract which ultimately went to Mulvihill Intelligent Control Systems.

(Don't bother to click on the links which are supposed to go to the Philadelphia Daily News. They are now non-functional.)

Back in the old days, with two competing daily locals, there'd have been no way to keep a story this major -- that the devices have increased accidents -- out of the papers. And lest anyone think the Inquirer "didn't know," consider their story which ran in August:

A provision in the state law that allows the city to use the cameras at traffic intersections also puts photographs, written records, reports, facsimiles, names, addresses, and "the number of violations" off limits to the public.

According to the law, such information is "for the exclusive use of the city" government and "shall not be deemed a public record."

Critics say the provision leaves the public with no way of knowing whether the cameras are effective in helping reduce accidents at dangerous intersections or just mechanical money-makers.

Currently, motorists can be ticketed for running red lights at the camera-equipped intersection at Roosevelt Boulevard and Grant Avenue in the city's Northeast section - one of the most accident-prone intersections in the country, according to city officials.

"How do you know if it is about safety or if it is about revenue?" asked Eric Skrum, a spokesman for the National Motorists' Association, a group that has lobbied against the cameras nationwide.

More recently the Inquirer reported a problem with a camera malfunction causing the generation of erroneous tickets.

But the real story -- the one involving a direct danger to public safety -- is that accidents have increased, and that is not being reported in the Inquirer.

It doesn't make sense -- unless the goal is to help Philadelphia keep the cameras. I sincerely hope that the Inquirer doesn't share this goal, and I'd hate to think that in their haste to preserve the cameras, they might be inadvertently assisting a government coverup of a dangerous condition.

Because, if the non-reporting of the danger is coupled with the deliberate sealing of data, how are Philadelphians to ever know that the official information they're being given is wrong? To give an egregious example, the Philadelphia Parking Authority's web site FAQ would have Philadelphians believe that any increase in accidents caused by red light cameras is only temporary, and that the deadly "T-bone" collision rate does not rise at all:

The installation of Red Light Cameras may temporarily cause an increase in rear end collisions. However, any small increase in these minor accidents returns to previous levels when drivers begin to slow down and comply with the speed limits and traffic signal phases. Significantly, however, the more severe accidents (like the deadly right angled “T-Bone” type) are dramatically reduced after camera installations. The vast majority of studies and reports (over 90%) support this fact.
According to the Washington Post, that simply isn't true:
The Post obtained a D.C. database generated from accident reports filed by police. The data covered the entire city, including the 37 intersections where cameras were installed in 1999 and 2000.

The analysis shows that the number of crashes at locations with cameras more than doubled, from 365 collisions in 1998 to 755 last year. Injury and fatal crashes climbed 81 percent, from 144 such wrecks to 262. Broadside crashes, also known as right-angle or T-bone collisions, rose 30 percent, from 81 to 106 during that time frame. Traffic specialists say broadside collisions are especially dangerous because the sides are the most vulnerable areas of cars.

As Glenn says, "traffic-ticket revenues are up, and that's more important than your safety!"

It's bad enough that a financially troubled city government would consider revenue more important than safety.

But when a leading newspaper ignores such a public safety issue, that's worse.

posted by Eric on 11.02.05 at 07:41 AM










Comments

What common good could possibly be served by deliberately keeping the "the number of violations" from public scrutiny? That alone strikes me as both suspicious and wrong. The rest of it can probably be kept secret for reasons of privacy, but numbers of recorded violations are important data for public -- i.e., democratic -- decision-making.

Raging Bee   ·  November 2, 2005 9:29 AM

City governments know that if you want reduce accidents all that is necessary is to lengthen the yellow lights. That, unfortunately for revenue, results in fewer traffic tickets.

Part of the funding for many of these programs is to show city governments how it will increase revenue by encouraging them to shorten the yellows.

Public safety and methods to make our streets safer (which is what we have a government for) is not their agenda.

It's criminal in many, many respects, but most of all it is because they do not understand their role.

Ironic that this should occur in Philadelphia. Tar and feathers would be too good for them and our Founders wouldn't have hesitated.

Grand Stand   ·  November 2, 2005 10:43 AM

I agree completely. I have always held traffic laws to be the model of good laws, since their function is not to control your thoughts or your private parts but simply to keep cars from banging into each other. But when even those laws get corrupted by politicians, we're in trouble. Looks like more cars are ending up banging into each other.

As for your newspaper, it doesn't seem terribly informative. You've discussed extensively one major terrorist episode it failed to discuss, and now even a problem right on your doorstep, so to speak, that it doesn't report on. You might as well be reading My Weekly Reader. I could aay the same about other papers. The P-I here is too biased to the Left on the whole, and you can't trust anything you read in The Walter Duranty Times. Blogs like this one are my main source of news these days.

Actually, it's been my (admittedly lazy and un-rigorous) observation that yellow lights have already been getting longer, and that red-light running has increased during the same time-span. My explanation for this is that people know that signals stay yellow longer (and greens more delayed), therefore they feel safer in speeding up rather than stopping in response.

How the use of red-light cams could result in an increase in accidents is beyond me. Anyone suggest a cause-and-effect relationship?

Raging Bee   ·  November 2, 2005 2:25 PM

I have absolutely no expertise in traffic engineering, but a Virginia study said it was because of sudden stops:

RICHMOND — Habitual red-light runners are hitting the brakes at intersections monitored by enforcement cameras, but their newfound caution is sometimes rewarded with a crumpled rear bumper, according to a new state study.
The research arm of the Virginia Department of Transportation found that cameras reduce red-light-running by about 21 percent. However, the study also shows that crashes become more frequent at intersections after cameras are installed, driven by a surge in rear-end smash-ups.

http://home.hamptonroads.com/stories/story.cfm?story=80826&ran=203722

Eric Scheie   ·  November 2, 2005 3:24 PM

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