In many cities around the world, cash-strapped governments are turning out street lights to save money. In other cities, vandals are actually stealing the streetlights for their metal value. (Learn from Baltimore- do not make your street lights out of lovely spun aluminum). We are so obsessed with making our streets as bright as possible to deter crime, but does it really make a difference?
In Britain, three quarters of a million street lights have been turned off to save energy, money and maintenance. One would think that this would have affected car and pedestrian safety, as well as crime; however, Alissa Walker of Gizmodo points to a recent study that shows that it made very little difference, if any. Eric Betz of Astronomy.com (who has a vested interest in people turning out the lights) looks at research from University of London:
Researchers looked at 14 years of data from 63 local authorities across England and Wales, searching for trends among agencies that reduced their lighting….That research shows less than 1 percent of all nighttime traffic collisions occurred on streets where the lights had been switched off. And overall, the statistics showed no link between accidents and dimming, reducing, or changing the style of streetlights. Secondly, the researchers looked at lighting’s effect on crime trends. In regions of reduced lighting, they found, there was no increase in burglary, auto theft, robbery, violence, or sexual assault.
Not everyone agrees. Back in the States, an astronomy professor tried to get a city in Massachusetts to turn off lights in empty parking lots. The chief of police objected, claiming “The only thing better for preventing crime than more cops is more lights.” In fact way back in 1914 Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis noted “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
We have covered this subject earlier, in a discussion of the disappearing night sky. Author Paul Bogard was quoted:
The minute you start talking about light pollution, or the importance of darkness, people’s first response is, “Yeah, but we need light for safety and security.” It touches a nerve. I would just say that we don’t need all this light for safety and security. We use way more than we need, and it isn’t making anybody any safer.
Perhaps the answer is smarter lighting. Earlier this year I saw Sensus smart streetlights where every single one was independently connected and controlled. Perhaps street lights could only go on when a car or pedestrian approaches. It might seem more like a psychedelic light show than a quiet well lit street, but it would use a lot less energy and preserve a darker sky.