If you've driven much in the Dallas, Texas metroplex you've discovered that not only is driving a competitive sport, it becomes a "winner take all" game when a traffic light turns red. Many drivers in Dallas consider a traffic light's progression from green to amber to red akin to the appearance of a white flag at a NASCAR race--the final reminder that the race is almost over so you need to get to the finish line as fast as you can. The profusion of "red light runners" in North Texas has promoted Dallas and several surrounding cities to install cameras that give red light violators a nice publicity photo--and a citation.
The use of intersection cameras in the City of Dallas has worked so well that earlier this week City Manager Mary Suhm announced that revenue from the cameras will fall short of expectations by over $4 million during this fiscal year. About a quarter of the cameras aren't generating enough revenue to pay their own operating costs. This city's effort to prevent a problem has worked so well that some intersections have seen a 50 percent or more reduction in red light running violations. Great news for drivers. Bad news for a City Manager trying to balance a budget.
And so the debate begins--and the hard questions surface. Do cities install red light cameras to promote public safety or to generate much-needed revenue? If a camera helps solve a safety hazard, how does a city resolve the new problem this applauded solution creates? If cameras deter racing through intersections so well that citation revenues plummet--should you shut off the cameras, or find another way to make up the cash-flow shortfall?
The situation reminds me of the well-told story about comedian Jack Benny who was once accosted with the demand, "Your money or your life." Benny didn't respond so the mugger said it again. Benny's long silence was followed by the same demand a third time. "I'm thinking, I'm thinking," Benny replied.
The most innovative and effective solution can still create significant problems if you don't adequately and comprehensively anticipate the problems the new solution will generate. According to The Dallas Morning News, the city of Lubbock, TX voted to shut down their cameras partially due to an increase in the number of rear-end collisions after the cameras were installed.
Dallas discovered that cameras can significantly reduce the perilous situations created by red light runners. But any city that installs the cameras in the hope of bolstering the city budget needs to plan for the problem of declining citation revenue if the program works.
Problems rarely occur in isolation. Every cause can be an effect and every effect can be a cause. A public safety solution probably isn't the right answer for a city revenue problem. Cutting a program because it works hardly seems like the right way to reward success.
The next time you propose a solution to a problem take the time to evaluate how that solution will impact the rest of your organization. Great solutions can often create annoying new problems.