Last Monday, I participated in my first meeting on the Board of Aldermen. When I first studied the agenda, I expected the evening to be uneventful. It was the first meeting of the year, and the most contentious item — the selection of the Board’s leadership — had been decided weeks earlier. But much to my surprise, one issue sparked an intense debate: a resolution encouraging Connecticut’s General Assembly to approve enabling legislation for red-light camera programs in our state’s municipalities.
Red-light cameras can calm traffic. When motorists see such cameras, few choose to run red lights. Furthermore, red-light cameras can ticket violators without forcing police officers to obstruct traffic flow and put themselves in danger. Finally, when cameras can monitor red lights, police departments can reallocate their limited number of officers to higher priorities in law enforcement. Municipal police departments already have little incentive to enforce traffic laws; revenue from tickets benefits the state and not the city.
I support red-light cameras, but many disapprove of them. Some oppose red light cameras because a number of cities have reduced the length of yellow lights to increase the number of infractions. A number of studies have shown that such cameras increase the number of rear-impact crashes, although red-light cameras also decrease side-impact and pedestrian crashes — both of which are more dangerous. Most critics are concerned with privacy infringement, although the pictures that would be taken would only include the license plates themselves — just as cameras at toll booths capture the plates of vehicles that fail to pay tolls. Others have been concerned that some drivers could suffer when others to whom they lend their cars run red lights. However, tickets from a red light camera would be similar to parking tickets: there would be no points assigned to the owner’s license, and there would be an appeals process to examine mitigating circumstances.
Because red light cameras have been controversial, I understood that the resolution in question would not gain unanimous approval. Nonetheless, I decided to explain my support to my colleagues in an earlier meeting to help assuage concerns. I largely stated the arguments that I have offered above, and I cited the dangerous condition of streets downtown and throughout the city. Two of my colleagues responded by saying that Yale students have to learn how to cross the street, and much to my chagrin, laughter filled the room.
We have a number of irresponsible pedestrians on campus, and I am often among them. We cross the street outside of crosswalks, against walk signals, and amid oncoming traffic. We hurriedly jaywalk on the way to classes and leisurely stroll through traffic at nights and on the weekends. As Yale students, and as citizens of New Haven, we can do better. But we are not the only problem; motorists and cyclists often cause issues as well.
All of us have seen cars accelerate through red lights at the complicated intersection of York, Elm and Broadway — only to speed into the crosswalk just as the walk signal begins. At that intersection and others downtown, motorists regularly illegally turn right on red. Still other drivers regularly speed down Elm, Grove and other streets. Cyclists often ride on the sidewalks, dress inappropriately, and forget to wear helmets that are designed to keep them safe.
Of course, there are reasons for some of these actions. We need better infrastructure to support safer streets. Many students often jaywalk because the design of our campus encourages us to walk where there are no crosswalks, like across Elm Street from Durfee’s to the Noah Porter Gate. Many cyclists ride on the sidewalk because we have very few bike lanes downtown, no bike boxes and because our streets do not appear to be safe. Motorists speed excessively because some of our streets are too wide, and their one-way orientation encourages motorists to drive faster than they should. They run red lights because they can: The city has a limited number of police officers, and traffic enforcement is not the department’s top priority. We need red-light cameras to help make our streets safer, but implementing them would only solve a small portion of our problem.
During each of the past five academic years, someone in our community has been struck by a vehicle. As we begin another semester at Yale and in New Haven, all of us — pedestrians, motorists and cyclists — can and should do better. When we can, we should cross in painted crosswalks. When we choose not to, we should make eye contact with drivers before walking into busy streets. Cyclists should ride in the streets — not on the sidewalks — and they should wear appropriate clothing to protect themselves. And motorists should slow down, follow the appropriate signage and stop at red lights. We need to improve our infrastructure and our traffic enforcement, but until that happens, we should all take preventative steps to keep ourselves safe.
I regret that the issue of red-light cameras received little attention in this space before I voted last week. But I plan for this to be the first of many columns that I will write over the next two years to create a dialogue on campus about items coming before the Board. Yale students are vital members of the New Haven community, and traffic enforcement hardly represents the scope of our engagement engage with the city. I hope that as many students as possible choose to participate in the important policy debates on the Board of Aldermen and throughout the City of New Haven.
Michael Jones is a junior in Saybrook College and the Ward 1 alderman.