Are live traffic cameras at red light intersections worth it?
June 18, 2012
By: Will Roberts
Live traffic cameras first came into use in the United
New York City in 1993 as a tool to
automate the issuance of red-light violations and,
hopefully, decrease collisions. After their introduction to
Chicago in 2003, red light cameras quickly grew in
popularity and spread across the country. Their presence is
extremely controversial, with some public safety advocates
highlighting reductions in fatal crashes and others claiming
that they are unconstitutional and unnecessary.
Red light traffic surveillance cameras typically operate
with a sensor located near the crosswalk embedded in the
pavement. Once the light turns red, the sensor gets
energized and it triggers the camera when a car moves over
it. At that point, the camera shoots both
video and still images of the car and its license plate.
Some systems also use an always-on camera that serves as a
traffic surveillance camera above and beyond simply
monitoring the intersection during red lights.
Traffic cameras have two key advantages. The first is
that they reduce some types of accidents at intersections
equipped with them. The second is that they can provide
additional revenue for some cities and jurisdictions that
Research conducted by the Federal Highway Administration
shows that red light cameras
reduce the instances of "t-bone" collisions where a car
drives into another car's side by 25 percent. These
collisions tend to have higher injury rates than rear end
collisions. An international study showed a 13 to 29 percent
reduction in all types of injury-causing crashes at
intersections equipped with red light cameras. Another study
conducted in Virginia documented an
8 to 42 percent reduction in crashes related to red
Cameras at intersections can be significant money makers
for cities. When the Phoenix suburb of El Mirage, Arizona
installed both speed and red-light cameras, they
earned over $1.3 million over just a portion of a fiscal
year. When the city of Naperville, Illinois allowed their
red light camera contract to expire early in 2012, they
estimated they would
lose $261,000 a year in income.
Red light cameras have numerous cons. In many cities,
they can be money-losers. They also increase certain types
of accidents. Finally, the presence of the cameras not only
inflames civil libertarians but can even incentivize law
enforcement agencies to violate laws in the quest for
additional ticket income.
For every city that profits, there are other cities that
lose money on their cameras.
Escondido, California and
Charlotte, North Carolina are two examples of this. Los
Angeles' recently disconnected system has been described as
money "sieve." The only reason that
Coral Springs, Florida has not lost money on their
cameras is that they have a cost-neutral contract. In an
attempt to counter this problem, many cities have actually
shortening the length of yellow lights to increase
tickets issued by red light cameras. Shortening yellows
actually increases collisions, trading safety for revenue.
The FHA study that showed a reduction in "T-bone" crashes
also shows that red light cameras actually
increase the number of rear-end collisions as people
stop short to avoid being caught by the camera. The Virginia
study that showed an overall reduction in accidents confirms
the dual-edged nature of the cameras by establishing a
27 to 42 percent increase in rear-endings. It also shows
that the total cost of accidents increases because of them.
This happens because although there are fewer crashes
related to red-light running, there are more crashes that
come from people stopping short.
Finally, red light cameras are extremely controversial.
Organizations like the
National Motorists Association and the
ACLU have expressed opposition to them for a number of
reasons. They infringe on privacy, lead to incorrect
citations, and turn law enforcement away from being a public
safety function to a revenue collection function. In fact,
many cameras that have proven their worth by significantly
reducing red-light running and increasing safety have
actually gotten removed because, even though they were a
positive safety tool, they were no longer effective revenue
While red light cameras have shown some safety benefits,
they come at a very high cost. Governments that use them
tend to either lose money or anger many of their occupants.
This may the reason that
many jurisdictions including
Houston and Los Angeles have all removed them, joining
9 states that have completely banned them. Given the
spotty record of these devices, it is likely that the future
will bring more opposition to them.
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