Smile for the (Red Light) Camera!

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This is a guest post by Elizabeth Madison.

red light camera 2 fullsizeDo 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.

Where Does Your State Stand?

As of January 2015, 21 states and the District of Columbia had passed laws permitting the use of photo red light cameras at traffic lights. Alternatively, 10 states had passed laws prohibiting their use, leaving 19 states with no specific policy regarding their use. The breakdown is as follows:

States allowing photo red light cameras: Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Washington D.C., Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington.
States prohibiting photo red light cameras: Arkansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, South Carolina, West Virginia, Wisconsin.
States with no specific policy regarding photo red light cameras: Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Wyoming.

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.

Elizabeth Madison bio photo thumbAbout 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.

3 comments on “Smile for the (Red Light) Camera!”

  1. This is ALL about money. All you need to do is have 85th percentile free-flowing traffic speed limits, use longer yellow times, have a decent length all-red interval, and sensors to keep an all-red for late arrivals. No crashes! You can also sync lights and use sensors to keep smooth flow and know where the cars are.

    What is the point of using poor engineering with predatory enforcement, if not 100% revenue?

    You can easily find data showing cameras lead to more crashes and safe drivers ticketed. The way it is setup, you have split-second violations, tickets for stops past the stop line, AND violations for a non-complete stop for a right-on-red turn.

    Speed cameras have been shown NOT to work correctly, as we’ve seen tickets to stopped cars! Same there, unrealistic limits and cushions.

    Then you have the stop-arm cameras for school buses, despite the fact that most deaths involve the bus running the students over.

    Check out the National Motorists Association for unbiased info.

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  2. “Based on current research, the bottom line for many localities is that use of photo red light cameras does in fact decrease traffic accidents.”

    What current research are you referring to? The research conducted by the Cities themselves? Certainly not the aforementioned study the Chicago Tribune commissioned, or the myriad of works out of the University of South Florida: http://www.ut.edu/uploadedFiles/Academics/CNHS/Health_Sciences_and_Human_Performance/Public_Health/Florida_Public_Health_Review/2008pp001008OrbanetalRedLightPaperMarch72008formatted.pdf

    All of the academic studies have found the same conclusion. The only “research” which supports the claim of efficacy, and changing driver behavior are those studies commissioned by the municipalities themselves, and the IIHS, an organization whose membership includes the very vendors who operate the systems. You also made no mention of the comprehensive white paper and research compiled by the US Public Interest Research Group: http://www.uspirg.org/reports/usp/trafficcamreport

    The City of Kansas City’s review by their own police department indicated increases in accidents at many monitored intersections, and concludes that they saw increases and decreases across the monitored intersections, without rhyme or reason. There was no correlation to decreased accidents, and in fact, the number of injury accidents increased overall after the installation of the systems. Why do you ignore such inconvenient information in your analysis?

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  3. I’m surprised you didn’t refer to one of the few independent studies of the effectiveness of red light cameras commissioned by the Chicago Tribune (see http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/watchdog/redlight/ct-red-light-camera-safety-met-20141219-story.html)

    From that article:

    “The state-of-the-art study commissioned by the Tribune concluded the cameras do not reduce injury-related crashes overall — undercutting Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s primary defense of a program beset by mismanagement, malfunction and a $2 million bribery scandal.

    Emanuel has credited the cameras for a 47 percent reduction in dangerous right-angle, or “T-bone,” crashes. But the Tribune study, which accounted for declining accident rates in recent years as well as other confounding factors, found cameras reduced right-angle crashes that caused injuries by just 15 percent.
    Red Light cameras fail to deliver on City Hall safety claims
    A new study shows that Chicago’s red light cameras might not be as effective as once thought.

    At the same time, the study calculated a corresponding 22 percent increase in rear-end crashes that caused injuries, illustrating a trade-off between the cameras’ costs and benefits.

    The researchers also determined there is no safety benefit from cameras installed at intersections where there have been few crashes with injuries. Such accidents actually increased at those intersections after cameras went in, the study found, though the small number of crashes makes it difficult to determine whether the cameras were to blame.”

    I wonder what independent studies of the data in other cities with red light cameras would show.

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