Thursday, February 9, 2012

Red Light Cameras - Houston's Failure

Red-light cameras are here to stay but only if they are deployed intelligently for good reason. The Woodlands, Texas, practices good use of the cameras and is having success.  It is a successful program by Montgomery County, initially implemented by precinct #3 commissioner Ed Chance. However, cities have some issues with their deployments. For example, making sure an automobile comes to a complete stop before turning right at a red light is questionable. It is the law, so it is a valid use of the camera, but does that practice result is positive and desired results?

I get feedback sometimes about my enthusiasm for red-light cameras and receive comments like "You are the only person on earth who likes red light cameras." It is true that I like them, but I like them, because we have deployed them here intelligently. I am not the only person who endears the cameras.

If you are going to repeal anything, don't repeal the enforcement of the law. Enforcement is what the cameras are doing and doing so for less cost than hiring law enforcement officers. We have traffic laws for safety and for mobility. Houston just ended their contract, because of the activists in that city and their constant deluge of complaints to the media saying the practice of using technology to enforce the law presents safety hazards.

We need to be careful about the rationale of deploying law enforcement cameras. It is the way the traffic lights were deployed in Houston, and the purpose for which they were deployed, not the cameras themselves that were the problem. Many people do not understand how they work, so some united to fight the use of the cameras. We deployed them to keep traffic moving. We had too many people breaking the law and thereby affecting the movement of automobiles on our primary traffic arteries. The practice of intentionally running certain lights has been stopped due to their deployment. We could have put traffic cops at intersections, one to monitor and one to chase law breakers, but instead we use technology. If there is not a penalty for breaking the law, many people disregard the law and pass their own (mentally). "No need to stop before the light turns red! No need to stay within the determined safe speed of the roadway! No need to stop before turning right. No need to stop at stop signs. I can safely cheat a little." That makes for a lawless society. Let's get real folks. The law is clear. The cameras are not the problem. Much of the problem is simply with modern society. However, people do listen to reason and need to be educated on the rationale behind using technology for this purpose.

Houston has failed, but hopefully someone with sufficient intelligence on deployment strategies will come back for a future project and make their strategies work. This was a failed project, because Houston had the wrong reasons and wrong plan for deployment. To use the cameras for reducing the number of accidents was not the right approach. In any given project, one must define the purpose clearly and have measurements of the project's success afterward, and assess the risk of failure. Houston had measurements, but did not have a good exit strategy. Always plan for the best but provide for failure and a means to deal with operational issues. You must measure your goals in the operation phase of your project and if you cannot get the job done, an exit plan must be envisioned, if not detailed, ready to execute. That is the way business works, it should also be the way government works. An exit strategy should be supported by the contracts.  This was an example of not following excellent project management practices, including the education of the stakeholders - those on the road.

Here in The Woodlands,  we have the opportunity and need to use cameras for speeding, as well as for enforcement of traffic lights. However, we would have to be careful how to deploy them. People will momentarily speed up in an intersection to make sure they are out of the intersection as fast as possible when the light is changing. Therefore, you don't want to measure speed in an intersection. It is best measured on open roadway approaching a light. There is of course an issue in the legislature with enforcing speed limits with cameras. Enablement for the right reasons is something we must continue to pursue.

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