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Auckland’s red light district – is Central Government the problem?

The title of the post says it all really. Nonetheless it’s worth elaborating on a few interesting angles to this debate.

First some personal context. As a car-less household, I spend a lot of time walking around Auckland’s City Centre. When I do I’m constantly amazed by the number of drivers that run red lights. I’ve seen several instances where the pedestrian signal turns green, people start to cross, before a vehicle running the red light zooms across the intersection. I’ve witnessed so many – too many – near misses and every time my stomach churns at the thought that a person could have been killed by such selfish and foolish decision-making.

Moving on. Red light running is not only unsafe, but also relatively inefficient. I think it’s inefficient because vehicles that run the amber/red light are more likely to hit the back of queues before they exit the intersection and hence block subsequent vehicle movements through the intersection. As Josh noted in his post titled “How do we stop this?” the vehicles below have created a right mess.

Cars queuing across intersection in Auckland City Centre

Anyway, the former Auckland City Council astutely observed  that from 2001-05 there were 387 injury crashes recorded that involved red-light runners. In response, the Council lobbied central government to set up a trial in which three red light cameras were rotated around ten intersections.

And what an impact the cameras seem to have had. In this insightful article from three months ago Matthew Dearnaley at the NZHerald observed that:

The number of crashes caused by red-light running at the 10 intersections in the Auckland trial dropped from an average of 23.8 a year between 2001 and 2005 to just 7.3 from the start of the exercise in 2008 until the end of 2010.

Worth pointing out that during that period New Zealand’s general road injury rates also declined, so we should expect a downward trend in accident rates even without the cameras. Nonetheless, the size of the drop is so large that it seems reasonable to conclude that the cameras have had a substantial impact on reducing injury rates at these intersections.

Source: NZ Honda http://nzhondas.com/general-discussion/73313-red-light-camera-town.html

Given these reduction in injury rates, it’s little wonder that various organisations are itching to get more red-light cameras rolling. In Dearnaley’s article, Auckland Transport’s  Road safety manager Karen Hay is quoted as saying “red-light cameras are an absolute priority from Auckland Transport’s perspective as a road safety tool.” In the same article Simon Lambourne from the AA (who is better known for his pro-National/anti-CRL bias, which – as an aside – is so over the top that I have made a lifelong commitment to never join the AA) weighs into the debate and actually hits the nail on the head when he says “there are lives at stake, and we cannot overlook such an important road safety tool.

Source: Andrew MacBeth, ViaStrada http://viastrada.co.nz/project/2011/red-light-camera-review

But this begs the question: If a successful trial ended in 2010, why – at the end of 2012 – have red-light cameras not been rolled out more widely across Auckland? It seems, from reading in between the lines in Dearnaley’s article that central government is holding the process up. The most telling comment is:

The Ministry of Transport spokesman said it had made significant progress towards a national policy on red-light cameras, but was still consulting key partners such as the police and the Transport Agency on final details. It was drawing on a wide range of research, including from overseas and from the Auckland trial, to decide where cameras were likely to provide “cost-effective safety benefits” and who should be responsible for buying, installing and operating them. Funding issues were also still being worked through, although the spokesman said officials expected to make policy recommendations by the end of next month to Associate Transport Minister Simon Bridges.

This Napoleon (the dictator pig, not the French general) like comment, when translated into common parlance, ,suggests that the MoT has spent the better part of 2-3 years 1) crafting an all-encompassing national policy to manage the deployment of red-light cameras and 2) arguing over which government agency should pay for the cameras and in turn who should collect the fines.

Now as someone who works as a strategic transport planner I do see the value in such policy, which would help to ensure consistent and effective decision-making. But I can’t see how the benefits of policy outweighs the costs of slow progress. Put another way, the process of developing a policy on the cost-effectiveness of red light cameras is, in situations where they would contribute to substantially reduced injury rates, is simply not cost-effective. The phrase “paralysis by analysis” springs to mind.

I would have thought that a more beneficial process would have been for the MoT to 1) acknowledge the need for a policy and consistent approach to funding and implementation while 2) simultaneously identifying “emergency funding” that allowed for the progressive roll out of red-light cameras to the most high-risk intersections. Basically just get on and start rolling the cameras out, even if at some point you will need to step back and develop a policy to guide future decisions.

If we later found that we had gone a little too far with “Big Brother – Red light Edition” then that cost is likely to have been offset by the economic benefits of lower injuries in the interim. Anyway, I hope that the bureaucratic wrangling over red-light cameras is now at an end and that central government will move out of the way so that AT can get on with the job of catching those damned drivers that selfishly and foolishly dare to cross the path of the green man. Your days are numbered!

50 comments to Auckland’s red light district – is Central Government the problem?

  • Matthew

    Adelaide’s red light cameras went in around 25 years ago. Auckland is a happening, modern place, is it not?

  • jonno1

    It’s not only red-light running that’s a major problem, it’s drivers entering and blocking an intersection (on green) with no hope of exiting before the light changes. A classic example of this is the Remuera Rd/Middleton Rd intersection. This issue is exacerbated by the light phasing (or non-phasing) between St Marks Rd and Broadway.

    • Liz

      Another one is the intersection of Symonds St and Alten Rd. Drivers trying to get into Alten Rd block the pedestrian crossing and often also block the vehicles coming up Symonds St. Drivers display both types of behaviours – running red/amber lights and driving through green lights when there’s no space. The vehicles blocked include a considerable number of buses.

      A yellow grid across the intersection may work, but really, it’s a signal controlled intersection, why should we NEED yellow grids? The drivers know full well that they shouldn’t be blocking the intersection. I think yellow grids should be kept for situations where it may not be as obvious, e.g. to keep a side road entrance/T-junction clear when the main road gets congested by queuing cars. I fully agree with the fines though. I have been meaning to suggest that someone photograph and fine the drivers who block Symonds St, as it happens pretty much every weekday (and almost every light cycle in rush hour).

    • Stu Donovan

      Technically I suspect that’s put in the same basket as red-lighting running – basically, you should only enter the intersection if you can leave it before the signal is red. Whether that occurs because you entered too late, or because of queues, is somewhat immaterial to the law (and cameras would be likely to catch both).

      • Matt Clouds

        There’s a specific offence of “Enter intersection when passage blocked” (only applies to intersections with controls, not to side roads), which carries a $150 infringement fine or maximum of $1,000 fine on summary conviction. The Road Code calls it the “intersection blocking rule”, and it’s one of my pet peeves. I was once on a bus that spent four full phases trying to turn right from Khyber Pass onto Symonds St during the morning rush because of inconsiderate so-and-so’s queuing through that intersection.

        Regarding the efficiency impact of running red lights, there’s also the cautious pause it triggers in other drivers before they move off when they get a green light. If I’m first off the line I never just put my foot down at an intersection where I cannot see that there’s nobody coming who might blow through a red light, and that extends to being wary of going if there’s a truck blocking my view. That’s a direct impact on traffic flow efficiency, because I cannot trust other drivers to obey the law I must drive much more slowly which then impacts on everyone behind me. It’s only a half second or so, but multiply that by every other driver who does it every time they encounter a red light… And, of course, there’re the effects of crashes, even minor ones, in terms of delayed traffic, etc, etc.

  • Geoff Houtman

    I heard the delay to more red light cameras was arguments over how the cash is split. The Police don’t want to share the revenue but don’t have the cash to buy more cameras…

    Re- the intersections, perhaps a “don’t block the box” campaign like in the US. Yellows grid painted on the intersection, big fine, sorted.

    Off topic- an arsehole in a truck blocked an entire lane of Ponsonby Rd this morning, causing traffic to back up to the Harbour Bridge and causing an accident that then blocked the lane for another hour.

    If you got caught in it- thank the frozen fish and food delivery people.

    • Stu Donovan

      If the delays are caused by the NZ Police then they need a good poking too.

    • Exaucklanderinsydney

      I didn’t think police collected fine revenue anyway, although they enforce the laws. Doesn’t it all go the transport agency in the end? so police have no financial incentive to buy these, even tho this type if infrastructure isn’t purchased by them anyway

    • Bbc

      Which state had such a campaign? I clearly didn’t take place in Massachussets, drivers there make Auckland drivers look like amateurs at blocking intersections and running read lights. I think it’s interesting they are banned in most places in the US along win speed cameras and the effect is quite noticeable. American drivers really have no respect for the rule of the road, ironically it makes them more aware of what’s going on however around them, and that actually makes cycling in those cities much more enjoyable than in Auckland.

      • exaucklanderinsydney

        Just because they didn’t have them in Massachussets doesn’t mean they didn’t exist elsewhere. The US is a huge country.

  • LucyJH

    I also have decided never to join the AA again. My resolve may be tested if I buy a car but I hope that I can remain firm and find another breakdown company.

  • Greg

    ya gotta be careful crossing the streets n Auckland.
    Its safer doing a tour in Afghanistan,

    • Stu Donovan

      I suspect your comparison is not strictly correct, but it did make me laugh. How about: It’s safer doing a “cricket” tour in Afghanistan?

    • exaucklanderinsydney

      Oh please, what a stupid comparison. I don’t find the streets in Auckland anymore or less dangerous than cities in other comparable cities. Lived many years in Auckland and never managed to get run over, sometimes it’s just common sense on behalf of the pedestrian. That’s not to say things couldn’t and shouldnt be improved, but it’s hardly Kabul or Bangkok!

  • Mr Plod

    I see parallels in the Police bureaucracy moving slowly on this safety initiative with the way the Labour Dept ignored the obvious safety issues at Pike River Mine. The combination of a no-fault ACC scheme and H&S legislation that pushes responsibility down the chain has allowed this ostrich like behaviour to develop amongst public servants. Time for some real leadership beyond just a single minister resigning. Fair call???

    • Matt Clouds

      There are actually some quite complicated legal technicalities involved in red light cameras. As a basic point of law councils can only deal with infringements by stationary vehicles, and the Police can only deal with infringements by moving vehicles. Which is perfectly clear, except that the cops have no legal mandate for red light cameras. Particular councils get granted authority by the government to establish red light cameras in specified areas, but that’s a very, very narrow exception to the basic principles of who deals with moving vehicle infringements.

      A blanket allowance for councils to install red light cameras would be fine, but it then starts to chip away at the clear lines between police and council jurisdiction. One quick problem is the basic principle of double jeopardy. If a cop pulls you over for running a red light and gives you a ticket, then you get a ticket from the council’s red light camera, that’s a breach of the double jeopardy rule. When there are only three red light cameras run by the cops it’s a minor issue, but when there are dozens spread around the city and they’re run by the council it will become a problem.

      If the police are going to operate the cameras then there’s no jurisdictional issue, just the minor matter of them not being legally allowed to operate red light cameras outside the narrow areas for which that has been permitted. Which has to be addressed if all tickets aren’t to risk being invalid because the cameras are operating without authorisation.

    • Stu Donovan

      I think it’s a reasonably fair call – but also believe that things really are complex and that government agencies are normally working in between these grey areas where complex situations are common-place. What I would like to see is more open acknowledgment from the public sector that “time is money”, or in this case “time is injury”. That in turn means that haste is sometimes worthwhile.

  • David O

    Isn’t the root of the problem the insanely slow phasing of all lights in New Zealand in general? Ever since we moved here having previously regularly driven in the UK, Ireland, the US and several countries in Europe, I’ve never known a place where the wait for a green light is so endless, although my limited experience of driving in Australia is similar, so perhaps it’s an Australasian thing.

    This creates a must-make-it-through-at-all-costs mentality. That is not to excuse the red-light running – which is dumb and illegal – but it helps account for why it is so common. If the green is going to be a couple of minutes, then people do dumb things.

    The long light cycles also make being a pedestrian aggravating in the extreme. Can anyone (i) confirm that NZ light phasing is particularly slow or not (am I just imagining it?), and (ii) if so, explain why?

    • The lights aren’t always slow, though. If anything many intersections have phasing that’s routinely too quick, allowing through only a handful of cars before the lights change again.
      The problem may be somewhat related to phasing, though that still comes back to the ultimate problem: people who are wankers behind the wheel. They’re the same people who tailgate, who don’t indicate lane changes, who don’t give you a gap when you’re trying to merge, who block intersections, etc. It’s all the same mentality: it’s my road, you can just get the hell out of my way!

      One of the great things about the changes to the licensing process is that it reinforces that driving is not a right, it’s a privilege. It’s just a shame that we’ve got three generations of drivers who went through varying degrees of WeetBix box to get their licences. It was barely difficult for me to get mine, and I’ve had my full car licence for over 15 years. People not much older than me didn’t have to demonstrate much of anything to get their licences, and unless they screw up so badly that they lose their licence for long enough to need to re-qualify they won’t have to demonstrate anything for more than another three decades.

      • David O

        Agree completely with this – many many very bad drivers in NZ! But I do think that the light phases trigger the behaviour to some extent. You are also right that some phases are very quick in long cycles, which of course prompts one or two tailenders to run the light to avoid waiting through the whole cycle again.

    • Stu Donovan

      In general yes, cycle times here are longer than is standard practise in many places.

      • Feijoa

        I agree with David O’s analysis of the problem above, but would add that in heavy traffic in the city it is doubly stupid as when the road ahead is congested nobody moves for long periods, pedestrians wait unnecessarily and the long cycle means someone will throw out reason and block the box so.

        If it is an Australasian perculiarity, are you aware of any studies assessing different lengths and providing the rationale, Stu?

        • Stu Donovan

          Good question.

          My feeling is that long cycle times are often a false economy, especially in diverse urban places with high foot traffic. This is especially true at peak times when all it takes is a double-parked courier van and a right turning vehicle to block an approach to an intersection. In these cases long cycle times you give you long phases where no vehicles can move.

          In terms of literature on the topic, try this: http://www.nzta.govt.nz/resources/research/reports/440/docs/440.pdf

    • Ash

      David, if you think NZ’s light phases are long, you should try Thailand’s!! We’re talking 3 minutes in many cases.

  • Feijoa

    Driving in Auckland today, turning right. Light went amber, car in front sped slightly and went through just as light went red. I had time to stop. Car behind sped up, overtook and went through the red cutting in front of oncoming cars. Nice work. Was that you Geoff, making up for lost time this morning?

  • Good to see red light cameras having an effect. More red light cameras & policing is needed to continue this.

  • Don

    Is there any available stats on location of cameras and offenders caught.
    I’d like to see how many red light runners there are at the Gore St/Customs St camera. This camera would be far more use in Quay St outside the ferry building.

  • Looking further through that section, red light cameras generally are already covered by the law so that hurdle doesn’t exist after all. I’ve seen so much muddled commentary on how the trial works that I’m not sure how it’s been constructed legally.

    For stationary vs moving infringements I think it’s related to the police issuing tickets to a person whereas councils issue tickets to a vehicle. It’s a narrow distinction but it’s pretty important. Looking through the law it’s not apparent that enforcement officers are restricted to only addressing moving vehicle infringements, but the way the tickets are issued is quite different.

    Regarding double jeopardy for speeding vs red lights, running a red light is an instantaneous offence. You did it right then, and that’s the end of it. Speeding is a continuous series of offences for as long as you’re speeding. Unless an officer pulls you over just as you pass a speed camera you’re being pulled over for another offence. People have lost their licences over the period of a long-distance drive because they’ve been pulled over multiple times by different officers. At the moment the camera snaps you, you’re offending. If an officer pulls you over a minute later you were committing another offence at the moment in time the officer decided to intercept you. You’d also struggle to argue that the camera got you at the same time as the officer unless the photo showed the police car right behind you, whereas a red light offence is absolutely detected by the officer and the camera at the same moment.

  • Darren

    Misleading title is misleading lol

  • ari

    As has been pointed out, this matter is sitting with the police to decide what to do. Only police can issue the tickets but they don’t have the resources to administer a larger RLR scheme. At the moment there is only a few cameras around. Support staff keep getting cut in favour of frontline staff. The system is not fully automated because there is a lot of ffalse positives (people pulling forward) so you need to manually check things. Else you end up with lots of costly court challenges. They don’t collect the funds from the tickets so they would seek to charge for their services to recoup the costs. Council doesn’t want to pay. The govt doesn’t want to pay. So nothing happens. Someone has to pay for the overheads of the system but no one wants to foot the bill. And where the surplus funds go is up in the air.

    • Stu Donovan

      Maybe I’m being rash but I feel we should move quicker when it prevents people from getting hurt or possibly killed. And if the fines cannot cover the overheads then increase the fines.

  • Christopher T

    As far as I’m concerned people ‘pulling forward’ at red lights are breaking the law. It’s one of the most common forms of motorists bullying of pedestrians and should incur the full penalty. The fact of the matter is that the police are generally inclined to ignore any incident involving motorists and pedestrians/cyclists unless there is a fatality or serious injury. All part of the mindset that if you’re a pedestrian in New Zealand you must suffer.

  • Ari

    It may be breaking the law technically but the law is not explicitly clear plus cyclists do it all the time too, though there is more specifics to that rule.are you suggesting cyclists should be fined as well? When it goes to court the defendants may win or lose but the cost to the system is very high in terms of people’s time. A vehicle must stop from entering a controlled area on a red but the area does not appear to be defined in law by the vehicle limit lines. The police would be swamped with challenges as each challenge can take up a whole day in court.

    • Stu Donovan

      The problems you highlight are real, but they’re not at all insurmountable and should not be presented as such. If the law’s an issue then fix it – and make that the priority, and let’s state clearly that we’re fixing the law so that we can implement effective RLC.

  • I counted the number of traffic lights on my 5km daily commute from Britomart to Grey Lynn. 22 sets, usually red when the bus approaches. This is way too many.
    One evening the lights were out on the Williamson Ave/Gt Nth Rd intersection. Traffic flowed much better, no queues on any approaches. Drivers took care and actually drove to the conditions. Pedestrians were even allowed to cross. They should switch them off more often.

  • T

    Why can’t the phasing of the lights be linked to a camera (any cheap camera, in a weather-proof housing) so that the next green phase is delayed until the intersection is clear of large vehicles?

  • Craig G

    I wish they would do a ‘blitz’ on these RLR’s. I ride a motorbike and as per the law I can legally lane split to the front of a stationary queue. Due to the number of near misses with RLR’s, as I go to start off I check the crossing traffic. Usually a quick dip of clutch to delay my start off will avoid the RLR’s.(I also do this in my car as a defensive action).

    Strangely enough, if I catch up with these miscreant’s they either do not ‘care’ about the injury/fatality they could have caused or are ambivalent and respond with….you choose to ride a motorbike.

    These people are knownly placing other people’s lives at risk……just once I would like the Police to charge a RLR which results in a collision with Dangerous Driving causing Death/Injury. The courts will probably pansy out as per normal but the resultant news reporting may cause some RLR’s to think a bit more.

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