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What Traffic Lights Say About the Future of Regulation

BY David Eaves | Wednesday, June 12 2013

London traffic lights (credit: Flickr/@doug88888)

Last month a local television news station in Florida broke a fascinating story about traffic lights that has everything to with the intersection of money, politics and technology, and what some political and policy battles around technology may increasingly look like in the future.

Around the world governments are increasingly looking to computers to find violators and enforce rules. Traffic cameras already exist in dozens of countries like France, the UK, Canada and the United States. And it won't just be for traffic. Whether it is determining who gets searched at the border to who gets audited, sensors and the rules that guide them are going to have a big impact on citizens relationship with the state.

The critical question at the core of all this is, what is the purpose of the red light camera? Is it to make intersections safer by recording, punishing and thus deterring drivers who recklessly run red lights? Or is it a means for government — or a private company — to raise revenue? Which goal should this technology serve?

The tension in that choice is exactly what came to the fore in Florida, in a story Singularity University founding executive director Salim Ismail invoked during a talk at Personal Democracy Forum 2013 last year. In 2010, the state passed an act regulating the use of red light cameras that declared the length of a yellow light would be determined by either the speed limit or the 85th percentile of the speed drivers actually drive as they pass by, whichever was greater. Legislators removed the part that said "whichever is greater," allowing regulators to set yellow light times based on speed limits as opposed to how fast people actually drove.

This matters because shorter yellow light times make it harder for people to react and brake safely. It also increases the likelihood that a driver will enter the intersection a split-second late, be caught by the camera and issued a ticket.

And this is precisely what started to happen. After the regulations were changed, the state, along with cities and counties, began shortening the length of yellow lights. In some intersections this doubled the number of fines. Overall, the state — and American Traffic Solutions, the company installs the cameras and collects a percentage of each ticket issued — was on track to collect at least 20% more money in 2013.

This might all be considered fine if this also meant Florida's roads were safer. In truth, the exact opposite was likely occurring. Noah Pransky, the reporter who broke the story, found several U.S. Dept. of Transportation (USDOT) documents that showed how longer yellow lights are, in reality, safer. Indeed relying on just the speed limit to determine yellow light duration was downright dangerous. One of the documents pointed out that "a 1 sec increase in yellow time results in 40 percent decrease in severe red-light related crashes." Worse, USDOT recommends adding an additional half second in communities with many elderly drivers. Guess which state has the highest percentage of people over 65? (answer: Florida, at 17.3 percent).

In effect, what the state of Florida is saying is that a $20 million increase in revenue is worth an increase in risk of property damage, injury and death as a result of increased accidents. Based on national statistics, there are likely about 62 deaths and 5,580 injuries caused by red light running in Florida each year. If shorter yellow lights increased that rate by 10 percent (far less than predicted by the USDOT) that could mean an additional 6 deaths and 560 injuries. Essentially the state will raise a measly extra $35,000 for each injury or death its regulations help to cause, and possibly far less.

Of course, while the rules made Floridians less safe and cost them over $100 million in fines annually, there was one party that benefited enormously — the companies that install and operate the cameras. These companies, like American Traffic Solutions (ATS), earned a slice of each ticket. Thus, more tickets meant more revenue. ATS spent $529,000 in political donations to Florida legislators and $1 million lobbying.

There are so many lessons here for those interested in using technology as part of any regulatory regime. It is fascinating to see a technology that is sold based on its benefits to make communities become safer quickly evolve into a source of revenue the state is unwilling to relinquish. It seems crazy to me that any government would financially reward a company based on the number of "infractions" it finds as this creates some disturbing incentives. Worse, these incentives made it possible for the state to ignore federal regulations and a large body of evidence that showed it was making driving in Florida less safe.

I'd like to think that algorithmic regulation could help with this situation as well. Perhaps traffic lights could learn to make intersections safer. Indeed the USDOT's equation that calculates an effective yellow light length could serve as an excellent starting point for such a program. Perhaps supplemented with census data about a community's average age, a cameras could observe drivers' reaction times and braking behavior, then make miniscule adjustments to the yellow light length that, over time, reduce accident rates. But such changes would need to forgo revenue generation as a goal and make safety the primary purpose. That is ultimately not a technological choice, it is a political one.

There is a good ending to all of this. It turns out that Florida will be reversing its decision about yellow lights. In the end, public pressure, scrutiny and, I'd like to think, evidence, appears to have won the day.

As more and more of the enforcement of our society moves from people to code these types of rules and incentives will increasingly matter. And huge kudos to the Noah Pransky and the team at WTSP news for some fantastic investigative news reporting. These types of stories — that, because they are about regulations, often seem boring — are exactly what we will need more of, and I think will become more popular as they touch people's day-to-day lives.