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February 1, 2011

Study suggests we should focus on red-light cameras more than the death penalty

Though division on death penalty policy and practice is often deep and heated, advocates and opponent of capital punishment typically share a serious and genuine commitment to the unique value of human life (of murder victims and/or of those who murder).  The title of this post, inspired by this new USA Today article, is meant to encourage all those with a serious and genuine commitment to the unique value of human life to start focusing less attention on the death penalty and more on red-light cameras.  Here is why:

The national debate over red-light cameras is heating up again as a new analysis from a traffic safety group argues that the controversial devices saved 159 lives in 14 cities during a five-year period.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says red-light cameras reduced the rate of fatal red-light running by 24% from 2004 to 2008.  Had the cameras been installed in all U.S. cities with populations above 200,000, 815 deaths would have been prevented, says the Insurance Institute, a group funded by auto insurers that aims to reduce deaths, injuries and property damage caused by crashes on the nation's roads.  "The cities that have the courage to use red-light cameras despite the political backlash are saving lives," IIHS President Adrian Lund says.

The research was immediately challenged by camera opponents. Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association, a drivers' rights group, says cameras increase crashes in some areas and that other strategies are more effective in making intersections safer. "Lengthening the duration of the yellow cycle can reduce red-light running by 50% or more," Biller says, citing a 2005 study by the Texas Transportation Institute, a research arm of Texas A&M University.

"Doing nothing is better than putting up cameras," says Greg Mauz, a researcher for the Best Highway Safety Practices Institute, which studies traffic-safety laws. "There are about 700 additional deaths since cameras have proliferated, from 2001 on. The whole idea that cameras can prevent fatalities and crashes is total nonsense."

Mauz noted that cameras have never been approved by voters in 16 tries. Camera opponents such as Mauz argue that their only purpose is to generate revenue.

I cannot readily weigh in on this empirical debate over whether red-light cameras save innocent lives, but my instinct has long been that effective traffic rules and regulations has the potential to save many more innocent lives at a much lower cost than the modern administration of capital punishment. For this reason and many others, I wish many of lawyers, researchers and public policy groups that invest so much time and energy to debates over the death penalty would invest some of these resources to figuring out how best to maximize the innocent lives we could save on our nation's roadways.

February 1, 2011 at 11:39 AM | Permalink


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so, death penalty saves lives? very funny!

Posted by: claudio giusti, italia | Feb 1, 2011 1:04:18 PM

I understand your point, but fail to be compelled by it. When it comes to public policy, I'm much more concerned over whether the government (of which I am a part through being a citizen) commits murder, than I am over the tweaking of accident rates.

Saving deaths from traffic accidents is a good thing and worth discussing (although red light cameras are not the answer), but it's hardly in a comparable category of policy as the intentional taking of life.

Posted by: Pete Guither | Feb 1, 2011 3:01:09 PM

But, Pete, if the government passes bad laws that cost innocent lives, isn't that part of your concern. Consider Virginia, where the article says there is a bill now to prohibit these camera. If we can be 75% certain that putting red-light cameras in Virginia's 5 biggest cities will save, say, 50 innocent lives in that state in 2012, shouldn't a government prohibition on the adopt of such life-saving programs be a huge concern to those who truly care about the value of life?

Perhaps, Pete, the chief concern of DP abolitionists is not life itself, but the "intentional taking of life." Fair enough, though it is that very "intentional taking of life"-is-different viewpoint that tends to drive most supporters of capital punishment for intentional murder.

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 1, 2011 5:20:22 PM

"Saving deaths from traffic accidents is a good thing and worth discussing (although red light cameras are not the answer), "

i agree if the govt wants to control speeding.... answer is pretty siimple really. prohibit the sale of cars that can travel 120 mph.....

Posted by: rodsmith | Feb 1, 2011 5:52:49 PM

It would have saved a prison guard in Washington.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Feb 2, 2011 4:59:23 PM

This seems like another false choice between liberty and security. The post assumes that the only choices are red-light cameras or nothing. I will leave aside the question of whether we can even know empirically which of those would reduce injuries more. Regardless, these are not the only two choices. We can do many more things to make our transportation systems more efficient and safe. Focusing on surveillance and disciplining of the citizenry is often the first impulse of government, but how about creating conditions that lend themselves to safety.

We could invest in safer roads, or mass transit options. We could reverse our current development incentives -- driven by the interests of builders and developers, not the broader society -- that lead cities to spiral outward to new sub-developments instead of refurbing and reusing more central, existing housing stock. We could even raise the driving age so that the most dangerous drivers in the world -- 15 and 16 year olds, god help us -- are not loosed on the cowering populace. We could require retesting after the age of 60. Etc. All of these things would lead to less driving total, or less driving by dangerous drivers. You need to put everything on the table before you argue for the moral imperative of one policy or another.

By the way, Doug, would you favor immediately raising the driving age nationally (through the Spending Clause) to 21? What if I could tell you it would prevent 1000 fatalities a year (not a crazy idea given youth driving habits)? Is this a no-brainer? Do you balance the value of the liberties of millions of people against the lives of a much smaller, but significant, number? Or is asserting that a policy proposal will save lives the ultimate trump card? (Eventually, of course, this road leads to the alleged Chinese system of death penalty for traffic violations... where is the principled stopping point?)

Posted by: Anon | Feb 8, 2011 5:34:49 PM

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