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Red-light cameras don't always make us safer.

The time, November 1996. The place, Scottsdale, Ariz. My wife and I were attending a trade conference and decided to do a little sightseeing. We were driving into Scottsdale coming to an intersection; all of a sudden I notice the cars in front of us hitting the brakes, HARD! The front ends of the cars were diving, tails a-risin'.

It was all I could do to get the car stopped and not rear-end the cars in front of us, while worrying if the cars behind me were going to stop as well.

We said, 'What in the world are these drivers doing?'

It took a little bit of driving to realize that the intersections where people slammed on their brakes so hard had boxes and lights at them. We had to ask what the deal was with these intersections, and we were told 'those are our red-light cameras.'

I then noticed the fairly discrete signs giving notice of 'photo enforced' intersections. That was my first, not-so-positive experience with red-light cameras.

Our first impression of red-light cameras was that 'these don't seem very safe.' During our one-week stay in Arizona, we saw more rear-end collision close encounters than I had seen in many years of driving. I saw many instances where vehicles could have made it through the intersection safely, yet didn't want to even take a chance of a ticket and decided instead to brake hard in order to stop - some even coming to a stop while the light was still yellow.

Drivers in Arizona had been taught and conditioned using negative reinforcement that yellow means stop, OR ELSE.

When learning to drive, we are taught that you should be able to make it through an intersection without accelerating and the light shouldn't turn red while you're in the intersection.

Red-light cameras are exact instruments that don't have any judgment, intelligence or consideration for the current environmental or physical conditions. The exact millisecond a light turns red, the camera takes a picture. The computer doesn't take into consideration the conditions (wet or icy roads) or extenuating circumstances (fragile or heavy load in your vehicle or a vehicle that is tailgating you).

Driver identification, gender mismatch or other conditions that don't allow for a citation to be issued account for almost 50 percent of tickets not being issued. If an officer were to make a traffic stop for an intersection violation, they would issue a citation to the violator, NOT the owner of the vehicle. The officer can also make a decision based on circumstances whether or not that person will receive a citation, warning or arrest.

Just ask the Arizona man who owns a vehicle that has been captured by the (now turned off) speed cameras of Arizona freeways more than 90 times. Every photo showed someone driving his vehicle wearing a monkey or giraffe mask. In every case, the burden lies with the state of Arizona to prove who is driving - the camera can't do that.

Proponents point to decreased accidents in these intersections as a victory. Let's be honest, it is really all about driver conditioning and training (via negative reinforcement).

One Portland intersection (East Burnside at Grand Avenue) had a decrease in citations by 97 percent between 2009 and 2010.Barring any mechanical malfunctions, I would venture to say that the daily commuters passing through that intersection have been reconditioned. That leaves those who either aren't aware or don't know of this enforced intersection.

The numbers also indicate that only about 28 percent of accidents are disregard of lights, which is people who are running the light. All other accidents are results of non-photo-enforced reasons.

Based on Portland's 2011 biennial report, average accidents in enforced accidents are down. Of course they are. We have conditioned drivers to pay attention at these particular intersections. While comparing the numbers, one noticeable item is the nonproportional (compared to other crash numbers) drop in rear-end accidents. While there IS a drop in rear-end accidents, it's not by a similarly proportional amount. Examination of the numbers show that rear-end accidents are actually up 7 percent from pre-photo-enforcement numbers.

There are many other arguments against red-light cameras and photo-radar vans that I won't go into. To my earlier point, this is more about the education, attitude and habits of drivers. In the observation of drivers, the biggest problem (as I see it) is drivers who aren't respectful of others around them, are distracted, and don't match their driving to the conditions around them.

Trying to change the attitude or behavior of drivers via negative reinforcement and punishment, while extracting more money from, and alienating, citizens, isn't the answer.

(Scott Johnston of Southwest Portland runs photoradarahead.com, a website educating the public about photo radar and advocating safe driving.)