Win One for the Gipper

Member Group : Nathan Shrader

On Sunday Americans will mark the one hundredth birthday of the late Ronald Reagan, a GOP hero who led his party back from a steep decline caused by Watergate, the unpopular Democrat war in Vietnam that became associated with Nixon, and the economic troubles of the Ford presidency. Reagan also helped widen his party’s tent to include independents and droves of Democrats disaffected with the country’s state of malaise.

21 state governors have issued proclamations declaring Sunday, Feb. 6 as Ronald Reagan Day. Ronald Reagan Day presents an opportunity not just to commemorate the Gipper’s life, but to also examine policy questions within the framework of the simple Reagan rubric. Namely, does the policy at hand enhance freedom? Is it cost effective? Does it benefit the American people?

A critical issue receiving vast attention at the moment is the impact of red light cameras used by various localities around the country. These cameras are installed at high-traffic intersections for the alleged purposes of preventing accidents, reducing police manpower, and enhancing municipal revenue. The issue further provides an excellent contrast between two approaches in different states—Pennsylvania and Virginia—where lawmakers are working respectively to either buoy or break the red light camera system.

On one hand we have Pennsylvania, where a Democrat state legislator announced this week a plan to introduce legislation extending red light camera capabilities to the 66 counties outside of Philadelphia, where Republican City Councilman Frank Rizzo was the driving force behind a red light camera program that was implemented in 2005. Rizzo’s web site claims that Philadelphia’s program has been successful at "reducing red light camera running by 90%." He also suggested in a recent Committee of Seventy spotlight that his program’s goal was "increasing safety by discouraging red light running."

The Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) reported in August 2010 that 70 cameras are in place at 15 intersections and that the program brought in just over $11.4 million for the fiscal year ending on March 31, 2010 with a net year income of $5.49 million after subtracting for program expenses. You read that correctly. The actual cost of operating the red light camera program consumed over half of the funds collected in the last fiscal year. On top of that, there are doubts that the cameras increase road safety. A 2005 Philadelphia Weekly piece found that "the number of rear-end collisions has shot up at the intersections of both Red Lion Road and Grant Avenue since the cameras were installed, according to statistics obtained from the Philadelphia Police Department."

This helps confirm the findings of the North Carolina Urban Transit Institute whose 57 month study of red light camera accidents found that red light cameras "are associated with higher levels of many types and severity categories of crashes." Similarly, the Virginia Transportation Research Council discovered spikes in the number of rear-end crashes and a corresponding decrease in the number of people running red lights that same year.
A Washington Examiner story earlier this week reported that despite the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s recent study on the benefits of red light cameras, their presence has had virtually no impact in Washington D.C. and Baltimore, noting that "Arlington County (Virginia), which had no red-light cameras during the study period, also saw a slight decrease in the number of traffic fatalities during the same period that traffic fatalities declined in cities that had red-light cameras." Thus, we are seeing trends of decreasing traffic fatalities in both cities with and without red light cameras.
Furthermore, the National Association of Motorists informs us that many of the studies touting the benefits of red light cameras are "funded by ticket camera vendors or units of government interested in justifying camera-based traffic enforcement" rather than independent groups who are trying to understand the real impact of these policies. The Association cites alternative studies from cities and states with red light camera programs that dispute the findings of pro-camera industry groups and government agencies.
While Councilman Rizzo continues to push for more red light cameras in Philadelphia and efforts to legislate a statewide expansion of the program advance in Pennsylvania, another elected official is taking an alternative path. Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William), a member of the Virginia General Assembly and a retired United States Army Colonel has introduced legislation to halt the expansion of "photo red."
For the purposes of full disclosure, I worked as Lingamfelter’s Legislative Aide from 2006-2009 where I watched him work towards the goals of efficiency in government programs and the judicious use of tax dollars. He means business and his top priority is sound public policy. If anyone can fix this problem, it’s him.
Lingamfelter told the News and Messenger in Woodbridge, VA that his reason for introducing House Bill 2327 is because "they’re causing more problems than they’re fixing," and he cites a 2007 Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) report demonstrating how the number of crashes has actually increased in certain localities since the installation of the cameras. The VDOT report found that the results of several years’ worth of red light camera data "cannot be used to justify the widespread installation of cameras because they are not universally effective."
Lingamfelter finds additional flaws to the system. "Using technology as police, prosecutor, judge, and jury is not the best use of technology. Moreover, these red light systems have one purpose, to raise quick money," says Lingamfelter. "Additionally they are very costly and the money could be used to hire police who do a lot more for folks than stand around intersections. It has been demonstrated time and again that lengthening the yellow light and adding time to red to green transitions is a better way to deal with the problem."

A close look at the data shows that the red light camera program is a stinker. A real boondoggle. Not only does it fail to live up to the Reagan standard, but it flunks miserably. It’s not cost effective, the results do not benefit the people it is intended to serve (and in fact may be hurting the public directly), and it certainly does not enhance freedom.

On the eve of this Ronald Reagan Day, citizens everywhere ought to be thankful that one legislator from Virginia is drawing a line in the sand. The success of his bill could send reverberations throughout other states. Meanwhile, Philadelphia and Pennsylvania residents ought to hope that Councilman Rizzo and the General Assembly learn a lesson in Reaganesque leadership by opting to place the plan to expand photo red in the ash heap of history.

Let’s defeat this bad policy for the Gipper.

Nathan Shrader is a Republican Committeeman in Philadelphia and a PhD student at Temple University. He can be reached at [email protected]