Thursday, June 30, 2011

IIHS and Photo Enforcement Companies Conduct Media Effort To Sell Cameras To Public and Press

Faces with rising opposition to photo enforcement across the US, including the rejection of red light camera program by voters in Houston and the rejection by the City Police Commission of red light cameras in Los Angeles, photo enforcement companies and their supporters in the insurance industry are waging a desperate but coordinated campaign to convince the media and the public that red light cameras are popular.

The Insurance industry front group IIHS today released a fictitious survey claiming that the people in cities across the county support red light cameras.  Of the 14 cities polled, 13 of them allegedly showed majority support for red light cameras.  The lowest level of support for red light cameras was Long Beach, Calif. (48%).

This result is puzzling, given that PHOTO ENFORCEMENT HAS NEVER WON A DIRECT POPULAR VOTE IN THE US.  Photo enforcement has been placed to referendum in the US exactly 15 times, yet every single time the public was given this choice, the people voted against the cameras.  The US cities which have voted against photo enforcement are:
Houston, TX
Baytown, WA
Mulkilteo, WA
Anaheim, CA
Garfield Heights, OH
Sykesville, Maryland
Sulphur, Louisiana
Chillicothe, OH
Heath, OH
College Station, TX
Steubenville, OH
Peoria, AZ
Batavia, IL
Anchoragem AK
Arlington, TX

It is curious how none of the cities above were included in this survey.  It is also strange that if almost every city supports cameras why voters have NEVER voted in favor of photo enforcement in a popular vote?  One would have expected voters in at least one US city to have voted in favor of cameras, yet they have NEVER done so.  In most of those cases, including Sykesville Maryland, public officials CLAIMED that a majority of the population supported the cameras, but when the voters got to the booths that was proven false.

WTOP ran the story on this report the day after the same organization publishing a propaganda video created by red light camera company American Traffic Solutions.  (The video claimed that automated traffic enforcement is basically not 'automated' because every citation is thoroughly reviewed.  That claim should be viewed with skepticism... earlier this year a case was revealed in Baltimore where a deceased police officer "signed" over 2000 red light camera tickets, bringing into question whether human review actually takes place.) 

The IIHS apparently was reaching out, on the same day the ATS video was distributed, to news organizations nation wide under condition that they not publicly release information about the report until the next day.  It is a curious coincidence that both ATS and the IIHS were reaching out to media organizations nationwide on almost the same day.

The insurance industry has been lobbying nationwide in favor of red light cameras, and particularly for photo tickets which include "points", which allow insurance companies to increase premiums.  Any time a photo ticket is issued in California, Arizona, or Illinois which bears points, insurance companies that fund the IIHS are able to charge higher premiums, which is pure profit since there is no corresponding increase in cost to those companies.  (While Maryland does not currently include points for now, because it requires identifying the driver, some other states do.  Maryland considered introducing an entirely new type of photo enforcement with points earlier this year, although ultimately the legislation was passed without points).  In addition, insurance companies have exactly ZERO interest in protecting the public's right to due process and the right to face an accuser, and as such would be willing to impose any amount of infringement on the rights of drivers for even a miniscule chance of increasing profits.  Imagine you put health insurance companies in complete charge of what could be served in restaurants: the ordering fattening foods might be restricted simply because eating them might, someday, somewhere produce a small increase in claims, whereas the companies would have no financial interest in possible undesirable consequences of such a move.

Producing an opinion survey which produces a desired outcome is fairly simple, by phrasing the question a certain way, or by presenting some facts but not others.  It is unlikely, for example, that the IIHS survey mentioned any possible alternatives to red light cameras, for example the fact that increasing yellow light times has been show to eliminate most red light running.  Or if the wording suggested or stated that cameras reduced accidents, without mentioning that there have been numerous studies which showed that the opposite is true, and in particular that rear end collisions tend to increase when red light cameras are used.  Questions can also be worded in such as way to encourage the presumption that tickets only go to drivers who knowingly run red lights, rather than drivers who do so accidentally, possibly a small fraction of a second after the red.

In fact the IIHS poll reads like a case study in how to construct a 'push poll' designed to elicit the desired response from people who have not thought about or only have weakly held opinions on the subject, something which PR specialists have down to a science:
Question #1: Do you believe drivers running red lights is a problem in city? (Goal: plant in subject's mind that red light running is a problem)
Question #2: Do you believe drivers running red lights is a serious threat to personal safety? (Goal: bring to front of subject's mind that red light running is a safety issue)
Question #3:  Do you believe it is acceptable for drivers to go through red lights even when it’s possible to stop safely?  (Goal: provoke outrage : 'What, there a scumbuckets out there who deliberately run red lights even if they have time to stop?' rather than the notion that red light running might sometimes be accidental or due to short yellows)
Question #4:In past 30 days have driven through a light that had turned red? (Goal: plant idea that this applies to OTHER DRIVERS not the subject: 'You're not one of those scumbuckets are you?  No? Cool, so were talking about enforcement against others not you.  Important for this part to choose a relatively short period of time rather than say a year so the number of yes responses will stay low.").
(Be sure that before asking the primary question to make no mention of due process issues, right to face an accuser, privacy issues, possibilities of errors, or possibility that cameras could be used to enforce other types of violations besides deliberate red light running  such as stopping just past the white line or almost-but-not-quite-stopping before a right turn, or that other alternatives might exist, so those factors will NOT be in the subject's mind... as that could ruin the whole thing)
Question #5:"Do You Favor or oppose red light cameras to enforce against red light running?" (Bingo!)
 
We previously documented the types of public relations efforts engaged in by photo enforcement companies.  Earlier we published excerpts from the Montgomery County Speed camera, where their contractor ACS detailed an elaborate media outreach campaign they would conduct to support that program, including planting favorable stories in mainstream media outlets like the Washington Post and WTOP (both were specifically mentioned in the contract).  ACS's contract included organizing surveys and statistics to "clarify and amplify" program results.  It was also documented how ACS created "Astroturf" groups, posing as grass roots organizations, supporting speed cameras in Baltimore County and Howard County.

In other parts of the county, an official from American Traffic Solutions has created internet sock puppets who posed as local private citizens, publishing favorable statements on photo enforcement stories.  ATS has also created astroturf websites (wrongonred.org) with a URL almost identical to a local anti-red light camera website (wrongonred.com).

Voters in the city of Houston rejected red light cameras in a referendum last year, and since then accidents at 50 former camera sites fell 16% since the cameras were removed.  This did not stop ATS and Houston city officials from colluding to try to have the referendum results thrown out in a court case where the camera opponents were not permitted to participate in the court proceedings.  In addition to this that the Los Angeles Police Commission voted to switch off that city's camera program, representing an overwhelming rejection of the benefits of cameras by one of the largest municipal police forces in the country (not to mention the fact that since California red light camera tickets have points the insurance industry which funds the IIHS stands to loose money right off the top).

Apparently photo enforcement companies and their IIHS allies, who care exactly zero about your right to face an accuser and your right to due process, have been placed on the defensive in some parts of the country, and will do anything within their power to reverse the rising opposition to photo enforcement.

Additional Information on ThenNewspaper.com