Anti-big brother Houstonians rejoiced when a referendum passed last November to take down the city's network of red light cameras. Nearly six months later, data collected by the camera service provider, Phoenix-based ATS, suggests that citizens' temporarily cautious attitude towards red lights has already reversed.
ATS analyzed 10 high-traffic intersections in different parts of the city that had seen noticeably decreases in violations when the cameras were installed, but have now suffered unprecedented increases. For example, the westbound intersection of Richmond Avenue and Hillcroft Avenue dipped from 5,628 violations in 2009 to 2,532 in 2010 — only to rocket back up to 3,799 in the first few months of 2011.
The intersection of westbound Southwest Freeway and Fountainview is an even more hyperbolic example: In 2009, violations numbered 2,211. The cameras' presence slashed that figure to 811 violations in 2010, but with the deinstallation, the number of violations has risen past the original statistic to 2,981 — a 72 percent increase. What this data suggests is that the camera program's removal has inspired more violations than ever before.
"This is the reversal of a trend," says Charles Territo of ATS. "Driver behavior was changing because they knew the cameras were there, or they'd gotten a ticket. The cameras can't prevent accidents, but what they do is change driver behavior over time. People drive differently, so they are a deterrent. I think this shows how much of a deterrent they were."
Territo argues that although no more than 72 cameras were installed across Houston, red light violations decreased city-wide since many residents were unaware of which intersections were targeted.
To what extent drivers' new confidence has resulted in more injuries and fatalities has yet to be tallied. Does the sudden uptick speak to a freewheeling local driving culture?
"I don't think it's just Houston," says Territo. "In general, when individuals know that there is a low probability of them being ticketed, they're more inclined to run a light."