Do Red-Light Traffic Cameras Help?

Feb. 19, 2005 — -- As red-light traffic cameras spring up at intersections across the country, critics are raising questions about whether the devices actually deter red-light running, or are just a way for local authorities to make a quick buck.

The cameras snap pictures of vehicles that run red lights. The violator then receives a summons in the mail for the infraction.

There's no exact count of how many cameras are being used, but one recent study shows that they are currently used in more than a dozen states and more than 70 cities across the country.

Proponents say the cameras make roads safer by deterring red-light runners from breaking the rules, but detractors say dangerous intersections are the result of engineering deficiencies and the cameras are just a way to increase revenue on the backs of unsuspecting drivers.

Do We Need Them?

"Red-light cameras just reward cities for bad engineering," said Eric Skrum, spokesman for the National Motorists Association, a motorist advocacy group that has been arguing against the use of red-light cameras nationwide.

The group contends that the best remedies for dangerous intersections are engineering improvements like longer yellow lights and shielding signals to prevent glare and make the lights more visible as the sun sets.

According to the group's Web site, the organization believes that "with properly posted speed limits and properly installed traffic-control devices, there is no need for camera-based traffic law enforcement devices."

NMA points to studies of red-light cameras that show that while there is generally a decrease in side-impact collisions, there is an increase in rear-end collisions as drivers slam on their brakes to avoid running a red light.

Robert Sinclair, a spokesman for AAA's New York office, says the risks are too great not to have the cameras in certain areas.

"The nature of the collision that takes place when someone runs a red light is a very dangerous one, the so-called 'T-bone,' " he said. "The weakest part of a vehicle is its side. So someone runs a red light and smashes into the side of a vehicle and lots of bad things can happen."

But Skrum argues that the cameras are not the only way to deal with dangerous intersections.

"Most drivers don't want to run red lights," said Skrum, "but due to engineering flaws at some intersections, they sometimes have no choice."

Speed Up or Slow down?

A number of studies have shown that by simply increasing the length of "amber" or "yellow" lights, dangerous intersections can be made safe.

"By increasing the length of yellow lights," Skrum explained, "you can cut down on the amount of violations and accidents at an intersection."

It's the moment for a driver when he must make a choice. As a light turns yellow, he has to decide between speeding up to get through an intersection or trying to stop in time to keep from running a red light.

Sinclair said that time of dilemma is shortened if a yellow light is too quick. "It might actually encourage people to try and run the yellow," he said. "It's that go, no-go decision time we worry about."

Studies show that lengthening the amber light gives drivers more time to make that choice and more time to brake.

But in some cash-strapped communities, shorter yellow lights at intersections equipped with red-light cameras means more tickets -- and that means more money.

The AAA supports the use of the cameras, but Sinclair agrees that their use needs to be monitored so drivers aren't taken advantage of.

"We've seen ambers as short as a second in those areas where they might be wanting to, let's say, enhance revenue," he said. "There needs to be a national standard for the length of amber lights."

A study released in January by the Texas Transportation Institute concluded that extending a yellow light by 1.5 seconds would decrease red-light-running by at least 50 percent.

The institute also found that cameras do have a positive impact: that intersections equipped with the devices saw a 40 percent decrease in violations on average. They also found that the cameras had a kind of "halo" effect, where nearby intersections also saw a drop in violations.

Who's Profiting?

The NMA says that towns and cities that want to use red-light cameras disregard studies that question the cameras' effectiveness, instead turning to studies quoted by groups like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is supported by many of the nation's insurance providers.

The insurance institute's Web site shows that it believes in the cameras and sees them as a powerful weapon against red-light runners.

Skrum argues that insurance companies have a vested interest in the success of the cameras.

"The insurance industry is going to profit from the cameras," he said, "because more cameras means more tickets being issued and then they can raise the drivers' insurance rates."

In addition, the companies that manufacture, install and maintain the cameras generally make their profit from a portion of the ticket revenue the devices generate.

Because of this, Skrum says, anything that might cause a decrease in tickets generated by the cameras would mean a decrease in profits for the camera manufacturers, the insurance companies and local municipalities.

"In many instances, engineering is being ignored because it's easier to put up a camera," Skrum said. "It's more lucrative to put up a camera."

Motorists' Group Offers $10,000 Challenge

In a "prove us wrong" type move, NMA is offering a cash prize for proof that dangerous intersections can't be improved through engineering.

In certain parts of the country, NMA is offering to bring in its own engineer to study any intersection equipped with a camera and to make recommendations on how the intersection could be made safer through improved engineering.

The group says that if its recommendations are implemented in place of the camera, the intersection will see at least a 50 percent decline in red-light violations. If not, a $10,000 donation will be made toward a road safety or road improvement program of that community's choosing.

"We're putting our money where our mouth is," Skrum explained. "We're saying if you address the problem with an engineering solution, you won't need a camera."

So far, no one has taken the challenge.