This is a guest post by Elizabeth Madison.
Do you think red light enforcement cameras reduce traffic accidents? Or do they exist simply to provide revenue? In either case, their successful implementation depends on the ability of local law enforcement to accurately and reliably measure changes in traffic accidents that occur where the cameras are used. (Getty Images)
Cities and states across the country are engaged in an ongoing debate regarding the use of photo red light cameras at traffic intersections. At the root of this conversation is the fundamental question: Do photo red light cameras promote public safety or are they primarily a source of local revenue?
Solid evidence exists to prove the safety benefits of photo-enforcement. The New York City Department of Transportation, for example, reported a 56% decrease in serious injuries, a 44% decrease in pedestrian injuries, and a 16% decrease in all injuries at New York City intersections with photo red light cameras. NYCDOT also reports that these intersections have experienced a 40-60% decrease in red-light violations. In these instances, red light cameras change driver behavior and reduce the chance of an accident at those intersections.
Denver also has reported improved safety statistics since the implementation of photo red light cameras. City officials reported a 27% decrease in accidents at intersections since installing the technology in 2008. These statistics influenced the outcome of an effort in the state legislature to ban photo-enforcement systems. A bill demanding their removal on the grounds that they do not improve safety and are used only to make a profit (the city made nearly $34 million from photo red light and radar cameras in the last five years alone) was not enacted.
Not every city has voted in favor of using photo red light cameras. Los Angeles, for instance, removed all 32 of the city’s photo red light cameras in 2011. The removal of the cameras was the result of an angry citizenry tired of paying high fines for traffic infractions as well as a fiscally tight local government. Dennis Zine, former Los Angeles City Councilman, explained that the program was costing the city more money to monitor and operate than they were making in infraction fines. Additionally, he claimed the photo red light cameras were “more about revenue than public safety.”
New Jersey instituted a five year pilot program in 2009 to determine the effectiveness of photo red light cameras in increasing public safety. As of December 2014 the pilot program had ended, and there are no plans to continue the program or install cameras anywhere in the state. Multiple system flaws were reported during the pilot program, including inaccurate yellow-light timing, unsuccessful notification methods, and a law suit the result of which reimbursed hundreds of thousands of motorists who were wrongly ticketed.
The penalties associated with a red light violation, when identified by a photo red light system, vary between states. The average price of a red light traffic violation is $50-$100. Both New York and Colorado have ticket fines in this range, with tickets in New York priced at $50 and Colorado at $75. California on the other hand issues a $490 fine, as well as 1 point on the offender’s driving record, for a red light violation.
The level of difference between state fines begs the question, where is the line between fines that are appropriate and fines that are excessive? This distinction may influence perceptions of the purpose of photo red light cameras. For example, perceptions that Los Angeles installed photo red light cameras in order to boost city revenue rather than improve public safety may be in response to the high fines issued in California.
Based on current research, the bottom line for many localities is that use of photo red light cameras does in fact decrease traffic accidents. While these systems may generate revenue for cities, the amount of revenue is specifically dependent on a variety of factors including the level of the fine issued to motorists. There is little current evidence that supports the claim that photo red light cameras are used solely to increase revenue.
For cities considering implementing a photo-enforcement program or for those who wish to demonstrate its effectiveness, local law enforcement must be able to accurately and reliably measure the changes in traffic accidents. Cities need public safety assessments and cost-benefit analysis in order to make an informed decision regarding the use of photo red cameras.
About the Author: Elizabeth Madison is a earning her Master’s Degree in Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia. She is assisting the NLC Center for City Solutions and Applied Research with the expansion of its City Solutions Database.