Florida Times-Union sells out for red-light cameras

in Statewide/Top Headlines by

Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

You will find all three in the Thursday editorial by the Florida Times-Union offering full-throated support of red-light cameras, which uses fragmentary data to draw sweeping conclusions about the efficacy of these revenue-generating devices, contradicting its own earlier reporting, which links Jacksonville’s red-light camera vendor, RedFlex, to a web of corruption and shady dealings from coast to coast.

The piece begins with an anecdote, making a sweeping, insulting generalization about Duval County drivers.

“If you drive for long in Jacksonville, you know the informal rule. As the light is about to change to red, you gun the accelerator, tailgate the car in front of you and race through the intersection. Meanwhile, the drivers waiting for green pause as cars run the red light. That is why Jacksonville has needed red-light cameras.”

Undoubtedly, there are drivers who gun it through yellow lights, sometimes not making it before the red. This is why a driver who is fully aware waits until the intersection is demonstrably clear before gunning it on green. We used to have a term for that: “defensive driving.”

This worst-case scenario anecdote, posited as a definitive case for red-light cameras, is a sorry start to an inauspicious piece.

“Now there is statistical evidence that accidents at some of Jacksonville’s worst traffic intersections have dramatically dropped within the last two years. Many of these dramatic reductions in accidents are at intersections where red-light traffic cameras are present. Or they involve intersections that are near roads where traffic cameras are installed, a fact probably not lost on the motorists traveling in those areas.”

So the piece proceeds merrily on a logical fallacy:  that mere geographic proximity to a red-light camera has a deterrent effect. “Probably,” rather. The conflation of so-called hard statistics and broad assumptions about human nature is a historical hallmark of the T-U editorial page, and this particular op-ed is no exception.

“Such evidence confirms the fact that red-light cameras are helping to improve local traffic safety. And it confirms that ongoing efforts by some Florida lawmakers and citizen groups to eliminate traffic cameras remain unwise and misguided.”

What evidence? None has been presented yet.

“Recent figures gathered by the Times-Union show major decreases in accidents at traditionally high-frequency local crash sites between 2013 and the end of last year,” claims the editorial, which adds that “11 of the top 25 ‘crash corridors’ in Jacksonville had fewer incidents last year than in 2013.”

Which means that 14 of them are at least as bad, if not worse. But never mind that: “red-light traffic cameras are making a real difference in those areas — and across our community. They’re clearly making drivers much more aware of how fast they’re traveling on our roads.”

Again, there is no evidence for this claim, except a cherry-picking of statistics. There is not even anecdotal evidence from one driver saying such a thing. Even Thomas Friedman invents conversations with cab drivers to prove his points.

The T-U does not provide hard and fast statistics regarding the citywide impact of these revenue-generating devices. Rather, the paper points to the most extreme examples, attributing it exclusively to the cameras.

“Sure, there are reasons to suspect that some communities see cameras as revenue generators.”

You think? The company in play in Jacksonville, Redflex, has operations around the world. Its play in the US market has come down to lobbying efforts, such as those that led to the passage of the Wandall Act in the first place. They do best, besides in the United States, in China, where public discourse is necessarily limited.

“But for any city with a reckless driving culture — like Jacksonville — the picture is clear,” the T-U editorial board says, adding that “Red-light cameras are a godsend.”

If you’re going to lay it on, might as well lay it on thick.

The editorial conveniently forgets the paper’s own reportage on the subject, from just last year, when the T-U ran a story, entitled: “Company behind Jacksonville’s red-light cameras accused of bribing officials in Florida, 12 other states.”

“The company overseeing Jacksonville’s red-light cameras has been accused by one of its former executives of giving “gifts and bribes” to government officials in 13 states, including Florida,” the article begins, going on to specifically reference the RedFlex contract in Chicago, which “was likely the result of a $2 million bribery scheme involving a former Chicago city official who oversaw the red-light camera program.”

“Aaron Rosenberg, RedFlex’s former top salesman who was fired and sued by the company in the wake of the scandal, has shot back at the company with a counter lawsuit, alleging the company routinely gave gifts and bribes to government officials in attempts to steer contracts,” continues the piece.

From Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago to the Sunshine State, the shadow of RedFlex’s pernicious influence looms, aided and abetted by daily papers with unbylined editorials, and political ties that no one sees fit to uncover until a lawsuit drops. The T-U reporters get it. Why doesn’t the editorial board?

A.G. Gancarski has written a weekly column for Jacksonville’s Folio Weekly since 2003. His writings on politics, culture, and sport have appeared in the Washington Times, the Daily Caller, and the American Conservative. His radio and TV appearances include frequent contributions to WJCT-FM (Jacksonville’s Public Radio station); additionally, he has been a guest on Huff Post Live and the Savage Nation radio show. Gancarski can be reached at a.g.gancarski@gmail.com.