RE.120110Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Red light cameras and speed vans are a nuisance, but the stats say they work.

I’ve been resisting the urge to write a column about the SafeSpeed/SafeLight program in Lafayette — the red light cameras and speed vans — because I’ve been nursing the unsettling feeling that doing so will hasten my transit into middle age.

After The Daily Advertiser published a well-researched analysis of the program in the Sunday paper recently, I thought, “What the hell? You’re acquiring a taste for Coors Lite anyway.”

It was good reporting by the daily and a reminder of some of the vital functions of newspapers — to get us thinking and talking about our community.

I got my first — and so far only — SafeSpeed ticket last spring while hastening my son to school. It was courtesy of a speed van, the more insidious component of the program because the vans change location almost daily. It was hiding in a parking lot on Congress Street near the public library when it got me. OK, it wasn’t hiding; it was just sitting there, passively and publicly, plain as day. I didn’t even notice the camera’s flash — I was too busy speeding, weaving in and out of traffic, eating a donut, sipping a hot coffee, fiddling with the radio and texting; it was reported to me by my son, who heaped an alarming amount of relish on my misfortune and whom I heartily cursed, as he made for a serviceable proxy speed van operator. The little son of a bitch. I proceeded to his school at the posted speed limit, wondering if the van had really gotten me.

About a month later I received in the mail a $25 ticket complete with photographs of my mug and license plate, which I paid with begrudging duty.

But despite my brush with SafeSpeed, I still support the program. And although the statistics cited in The Advertiser package reinforced that support, it already had an anecdotal foothold.

A few blocks from my house, not far from Four Corners, is the intersection of West University and Simcoe/Agnes streets. (Like dozens of agents of transportational confusion that make it hard to give out-of-towners driving directions, Simcoe/Agnes is one of those Lafayette streets that changes its name when it crosses another thoroughfare, like Johnston/Louisiana, Buchanan/Pierce, Cameron/Mudd and South College/Bertrand.) Simcoe/Agnes-University was in the first wave of intersections to be outfitted with red-light cameras, and it quickly became one of the biggest revenue generators. Before the cameras were installed, the staccato cacophony of a wreck — the screech of tires grabbing vainly at asphalt, the crash of metal, the shattering of glass and the peculiar silence that follows — was at least a twice-a-week occurrence. Nowadays it’s rare.

Yet in one of The Advertiser’s graphics I also found a telling statistic: While accidents have gone down more than 40 percent at intersections where red-light cameras have been installed, they actually increased at intersections without cameras, suggesting that motorists know not only where the cameras are and slow down accordingly, but still interpret a yellow light to mean “speed up” at the intersections where they know a camera can’t catch them. It’s as if we compensate for exercising caution at camera-equipped intersections by throwing a commensurate amount to the wind at the rest. Pavlov’s dogs we certainly are not.

So the stated intent of the program — to change driver behavior — doesn’t seem to be working as planned. Yet overall the number of wrecks in Lafayette has gone down since the program’s inception.

I have some difficulty appreciating the opposition — much of it vehement and vitriolic — to SafeSpeed. Government has a long history of protecting us from our stupid selves. It’s why we have laws setting minimum ages for alcohol and tobacco consumption, for gambling and driving. It’s why we set speed limits.

Yet many of us interpret those protections as infringements on personal liberty. And while we set speed limits for safety’s sake, we build automobiles that go twice that speed and more, and we manufacture and sell devices like radar detectors for the express purpose of breaking the law with impunity.

Shouldn’t the only people opposed to SafeSpeed be aggressive-driving jerks?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s off the soap box and back to my rerun of Murder She Wrote.

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