Crashes Doubled After Houston Banned Red Light Cameras

Collisions increased dramatically after Houston banned red light cameras. Chart: Houston Police Department
Collisions increased dramatically after Houston banned red light cameras. Chart: Houston Police Department

Law enforcement officers warned there would likely be an uptick in collisions when Houston debated banning red light cameras in the early part of the decade. Turns out they were absolutely right.

Houston voters banned the life-saving technology in 2010, with the press mostly cheering them along. Last year Houston PD examined how that’s impacted safety at intersections. According to department data [PDF], their predictions have been borne out.

The HPD data contrasted crash figures from 2006 to 2010 — when the cameras were in operation — and from 2010 to 2014, after they were banned and removed. At the intersections that formerly had cameras, fatal crashes jumped 30 percent. Meanwhile, total crashes were up 116 percent. And DWI crashes nearly tripled, increasing by 186 percent.

Houstonians are now safe from $75 fines, but according to the National Coalition for Safer Roads, Houston now carries the dubious distinction of being the most dangerous city in America for red light running. Between 2004 and 2013, 181 people were killed in the city as the result of failure to comply with traffic lights.

53 thoughts on Crashes Doubled After Houston Banned Red Light Cameras

  1. We’re splitting hairs because in practice the difference between an 85th and 95th percentile on a highway is likely less than 5 mph. The point remains that legislated speed limits are an awful idea because you have laypeople tweaking one part of a complex system without knowing what they’re doing.

    Not only are our highways not rural, most of them are old and constrained enough that they don’t even meet the typical geometric standards for urban highways.

    Yes, constrained in the sense that a properly set speed limit on them might only end up being somewhere in the range of 50 mph to 75 mph, depending upon the specific highway, compared to the 90 to 125 mph you might see on rural interstates with properly set speed limits. In most cases though the limit would be higher than the default, legislated 50 mph speed limit. As a livable streets advocate, do you at least support properly setting highway speed limits in NYC? That would have the positive effect of drawing traffic off surface streets.

    The paper that formed the basis for the 85th percentile guideline was discussing a setting that shares virtually nothing in common with New York City. Setting the NYC speed limit based on how fast drivers feel like driving is perhaps not the best of ideas.

    The concept applies everywhere, and common practice even allows you to go down to the 70th percentile on some urban streets if there’s a good reason for it. If that’s still too fast then you need to look at redesigning the street (or perhaps just ban motor traffic from it which I think is a preferable solution).

    You set speed limits at speeds drivers feel comfortable at for two reasons. One, it engenders respect for the law. If you set limits too low, people exceed them without consequences. The next thing that happens is gradual disrespect for other traffic laws. Look at the rampant failure to yield and general sloppy driving habits. You just didn’t see that when I was a kid. And a lot of my reading points in the direction of this all starting when we instituted the widely hated national 55 mph speed limit back in the 1970s. Although that law was repealed, states and localities continued to legislate speed limits even though this is a terrible, terrible idea.

    The second reason is more practical. We’ve been trying without success since maybe the 1920s trying to get drivers to drive at a lower speed than they feel comfortable driving at. Maybe you’re a super genius and have some ideas on how to do this but all the experts, and even the educated laypeople like myself, are fresh out of ideas. Before you mention speed cameras, the only way they would work is if you had cameras everywhere operating 24/7. Politically, that’s a non-starter. So is police saturation enforcement of speed limits. Been there, done that with the 55. When we tried it, more people got killed in the ensuing police chases than would have died just leaving them alone.

    Finally, you’re making the same HUGE mistake of using speed as a proxy for safety as many others on this site. Sorry but it isn’t. The primary cause of most car-bike and car-pedestrian collisions is something else. Even more important, the primary reason our roads aren’t safe is the insane volume of vehicles on them. Put large numbers of vehicles and large numbers of vulnerable users together, mistakes happen, and people die. Lots of deaths happen when the vehicles are traveling well under the already low legal speed limit. The narrow focus of this site on speeding reminds me of the drivers who complain about jaywalkers or jaybikers. They’re picking the wrong fight. Even if they win, the safety increases would be close to negligible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


There’s No Doubt: Traffic Enforcement Cameras Save Lives

Gawker dished out some richly-deserved ridicule to Tennessee State Senator Jon Lundberg yesterday, following reports that he is co-sponsoring legislation to outlaw the specific speeding camera that nabbed him doing 60 in a 45 zone last October. Lundberg denied that the incident had any impact on his decision to sponsor in the legislation, and contested the […]

Vox Pulls Back the Curtain on “Scam” to Save Lives With Red Light Cameras

You can usually count on Vox for accurate, research-based explainers of public policy issues. That’s why the new Vox video on red light cameras is so monumentally disappointing. Researchers have established that red light cameras make streets safer by reducing potentially fatal T-bone collisions, though they do lead to more rear-end crashes, which tend not to be very serious. […]
The red areas mark close calls between drivers and pedestrians. Image via City of Bellevue

Can Algorithms Design Safer Intersections?

Cities and tech firms are deploying new technology to gauge risks at dangerous intersections. These sensors, cameras, and machine-learning algorithms are promising, especially when it comes to measuring close calls that don't result in crashes - but cities are still figuring out how they can use this information. In the meantime, there's no reason to wait on designing safe streets.