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Editorial: Orwellian arguments against cameras overblown

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 28, 2013 5:00 AM

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Stop Big Brother is an organization devoted to fighting government overreach wherever the members believe they see it. They are collecting signatures in hopes of getting a referendum on red-light cameras on the Iowa City ballot in the spring. The pro-privacy crusaders have been on campus this week attempting to secure 1,500 signatures before the city’s April 1 deadline.

Opposition to red-light cameras isn’t new in Iowa City. Opponents of the measure have been lobbying against the city’s plan to install such cameras since the City Council approved the cameras in a narrow 4-3 final decision just over a year ago.

For the most part, opposition to red-light cameras stems from a perceived infringement on personal privacy. Hence the outcry against “Big Brother.” The cameras, this argument goes, represent unnecessary government surveillance that is not particularly effective in reducing traffic violations and accidents.

The Daily Iowan Editorial Board is sympathetic to the opponents of red-light cameras, but we do not subscribe to the same type of Big Brother paranoia espoused by some privacy advocates; we are simply not convinced that red-light cameras are particularly effective.

Let’s begin by assuming that the City Council is interested in installing traffic cameras because they could potentially reduce the number of traffic violations and accidents at intersections. Cynical observers might note that traffic cameras are used by local government to raise money (more cameras lead to more tickets and fines, which leads to more revenue), but there is no reason to ascribe such motives to the council at this point.

So if the cameras are meant to reduce accidents and traffic offenses, there should be some evidence that they do just that. A study by the Traffic Safety Coalition found that the general consensus among researchers of red-light cameras is that they are “effective at reducing both red-light violations and associated crashes.” The study found that these cameras modestly reduced the number of people running red lights and, thus, the number of right-angle accidents in intersections.

But the same study also raised concerns about the methodology and findings of red-light camera research. A meta-analysis of red-light camera research by the Federal Highway Administration found that most studies on this subject “… are tainted by methodological difficulties that raise questions about any conclusions from them.”

Further damaging the credibility of research claiming that red-light cameras are beneficial are the myriad studies that seem to indicate just the opposite. The Federal Highway administration also found in 2005 that while such cameras do seem to reduce the number of right-angle car crashes, this reduction is entirely offset by an increased number of rear-end collisions caused by more drivers stopping short.

The point is that there is really no reason to believe that installing the cameras in Iowa City would make drivers any safer. Without the reasonable evidence that cameras will be a net positive for the city, how can we justify making the investment?

We believe that many of the dystopian Orwellian arguments against red light cameras are overblown, but that is not to say we believe that red light cameras are beneficial for Iowa City.


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