June 28, 2011 -- It's the "Gotcha!" flash that no driver wants to see after running a red light. And it's quickly becoming the target of critics who say the cameras may cause drivers to take desperate measures to avoid being caught on film.
Red-light cameras, designed to catch drivers who run lights and endanger others, are now the subject of significant debate because some believe they may cause more harm than good.
"If people are stopping short because they are thinking about the camera, that is making things much more dangerous," said Patrick McElroy, a driver in Los Angeles.
It is a controversy that is leading to a red-light camera backlash. Houston has already voted them out, and now the driving capital of the world, Los Angeles, is on the verge of doing the same.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, nine states have banned red-light cameras. Several others have passed laws limiting the use of camera enforcement.
There is evidence to support both sides of the debate. A study this year by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety claims that in 14 of America's largest cities the cameras have saved 159 lives during a four-year period.
The study also said that if all 99 of the country's largest cities had them installed, 815 lives could have been saved.
"Cities that have had these programs are saving people's lives," said Adrian Lund, president of the institute.
On the other side of the debate are statistics that show the cameras also cause accidents. A 2005 federal study demonstrated that while injuries from right angle or T-bone crashes decreased by 16 percent at red-light camera intersections, injuries from rear-end collisions increased by 24 percent.
The final argument in the debate in Los Angeles may have already been decided by the courts. The courts have ruled that violations caught on a photo are unenforceable since there is no live witness to testify against an alleged offender.
Nearly half the tickets issued in Los Angeles go unpaid without consequence, leaving the city paying $1.5 million a year for unpopular, if lifesaving cameras.
Washington Towns Against Traffic
In Longview, Wash., Josh Sutinen, 17, is pushing an initiative to ban the city's new red-light and speeding cameras. Longview started a yearlong pilot program in February and placed cameras at three intersections and two school zones.
"I don't want any of that here," Sutinen said. "I want to get them out before they are accepted in the public."
Sutinen said that there were better ways for Longview to keep its roads safe, such as using radar to measure and display speed -- "Little guilt trips work" -- and even increasing how long a light stays yellow and red before changing.
Elsewhere in Washington, a Bellingham group turned in close to 7,000 signatures, Redmond activists were still collecting signatures, and in Monroe officials blocked a ballot initiative that would have allowed the public to vote on the cameras.
All four towns are hoping to follow in the footsteps of Mukilteo, Wash., where the cameras have been removed.
Sutinen said that he needs 2,800 signatures for his effort to make it onto the November ballot. Of the 3,600 he's collected, the city found that only 1,900 were valid. He said his group was doing well getting citizens to sign.
"We've been slamming the pavement," Sutinen said.
Even if he reaches the needed number of signatures, Sutinen faces a lawsuit from the city that asserts the cameras initiative is not up for referendum. The court is expected to rule on the matter July 11.