• Mar 17, 2011
Red light cameras have sparked some heated debate (tako... Red light cameras have sparked some heated debate (takomabibelot, Flickr).
Television images of cars being T-boned at intersections are impossible for viewers to ignore. That's great news for shows such as ABC's Good Morning America, which aired such video a few weeks ago in a story about the auto insurance industry's study claiming automated "red light cameras" saved lives. These devices activate if a vehicle enters an intersection when the traffic light turns red, record the license plate, and mail the vehicle owner a citation with a substantial fine. A percentage of the proceeds from each ticket goes to private companies who sell the devices to local governments and then operate the devices. This percentage is typically one-third of the ticket revenue, which can annually total $1 million even in small municipalities.

In reality, however, the incidences of cars speeding through intersections when the light is red is rare; just two percent of all highway fatalities occur during red lights in intersections, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Fewer are caused by cars intentionally running red lights.

This small slice of traffic enforcement, though, is creating big headlines. There is a fervor in many state legislatures and in regional referendums to ban "red light cameras". The reason is that in some cases the devices seem to cause an increase in accidents at intersections.

How's that? Most of the cars ticketed by the "red light cameras" are those that entered the intersection when the light was yellow and on the verge of turning red, many state legislators from Washington state to Florida have discovered. When motorists fear a photo ticket in these intersections, they tend to slam on their brakes, increasing the number of rear-end collisions, and possibly deaths.

The state of California suggests that yellow light duration be no shorter than 4.2 seconds, while the national highway constructors industry says 3.8 seconds should be the shortest duration. Texas requires 4.7-second yellow lights on roads with speeds of 50 mph and higher. However, yellow lights in intersections equipped with "red light cameras" are often set to last only 3 seconds, according to data from court cases. In one recent case in Glassboro, New Jersey, a motorist who had been issued a ticket discovered that the yellow light duration was only 3 seconds, while New Jersey law says that the minimum yellow light time must be 4 seconds. As a result, a reported 12,000 tickets worth $1 million were thrown out.

In cases of shortened yellow light duration, more motorists are then photographed and ticketed, producing more revenue for the private "red light camera" operators, claim citizen groups organized to ban the devices. As a result, the citizen groups charge, more motorists become trigger-happy with their brake pedals at these intersections, and accidents increase. In 2004, a Texas Transportation Institute study found that increasing the duration of yellow lights by 1.0 second reduced intersection accidents by 40 percent.

Most people without a financial interest in the results would agree that fewer accidents is a better outcome that more ticket revenue.

Of the five jurisdictions that were able to bring the choice of "red light camera" enforcement in their municipalities to a vote last November, all five banned the devices, including the large cities of Houston and Anaheim. "I would say the trend of red light cameras is on the decline," says Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association. "The media loves to show broadside accidents, but the majority of tickets from [red light cameras] are for people turning right on red."

One such "red light camera" was set up recently in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on a busy intersection where turning right on a red light is illegal. It sparked a heated debate when citizens complained to their state representatives, who then introduced a bill to outlaw the devices in the state. Proponents of the devices said that "red light camera" enforcement should be allowed for safety, yet in 2009, intersection fatalities in South Dakota totaled just 7.

Proponents of "red light cameras" include the insurance industry, which supplied the recent "T-bone" footage for the Good Morning America broadcast. Municipalities that have increased revenues from the automated ticketing of "red light cameras" are also in favor of the systems. However, vocal citizens where the devices are installed have urged lawmakers in more than a dozen states to ban the devices on two fronts: First, that tickets issued by a machine are unconstitutional, and second, that there are no accurate data proving the devices actually reduce accidents, despite the recent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety claim. In 2005, a study by The Washington Post showed that crashes in intersections equipped with "red light cameras" in the District of Columbia doubled, and fatalities and injuries increased.

Way back in 1997, Alaska's state lawmakers banned "red light cameras" after they had already been removed from the state by local municipalities. Alaska in 2009 had just 3 fatalities at traffic-controlled intersections, with no "red light cameras". So the argument continues, whether the devices save lives, as the insurance industry and the private companies that operate "red light camera" traffic enforcement devices claim, or if these devices cause more accidents in their quest to squeeze ticket revenue from motorists.


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  • 485 Comments
      easyapple
      • 3 Years Ago
      This is an excellent article. Two years in a row on Labor Day Weekend, I received tickets for running through red lights equipped with cameras !..... The neighboring lights which weren't equipped had flashing amber lights with hands then a yellow light and then the red light. The ones equipped with cameras had NO flashing hands with lights at all. Just a sudden transition from green to yellow to red.... I thought it was strange. Two years in a row... I decided to chronograph the light where I received the ticket two years in a row and discovered that the yellow lights were shorter by a full second than all the others. At thirty miles per hour one second allows fifty feet of driving !!! I wanted to make sure it wasn't subjective on my part so I went a second time and videotaped the lights. I was right. I wrote to the city of West Hollywood about my findings. They dismissed the ticket !!! These lights were rigged to trap drivers. To my great surprise.
      Gina
      • 3 Years Ago
      Who cares if there's cameras on every corner! If you aren't doing anything wrong then you have nothing to worry about. Besides, it might come in handy if some jerk runs a light and slams into you. When it's caught on tape there's no denying who's at fault.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I recently got one on these tickets. I made a right turn on a red light in which i did not come to a complete stop. It was 5 in the morning in a low-traffic area. I did slow down and check for any oncoming cars, and then continue with caution. I did break the law i guess. The ticket was for $540. I think it is super ridonkulous for a ticket to be $540. If i had run the red light going straight, I think that is bad. But for me to turn right on a red and got a ticket for $540, that is ridonklous. It was a out-of-state ticket, so i will not contest it and just pay the fine and attend online traffic school.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I do believe its a revenue tactic, I also believe that being hesitant while driving is dangerous to yourself and others. Having fear of getting a ticket while approaching a Red light , takes your focus off the perimeter of everything else. Thank You
      • 3 Years Ago
      these lights are inaccurate. i stopped on a right on red and then proceeded my turn... there was no sign that said no turns. i got a ticket in the mail... how do you fight ************ rigged and they get your moneys and so f ya if you don't pay. they should be fixed accordingly or taken out. gov'ts are getting out of hand.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I would like to say that the town I live in uses these cameras at our larger intersections and I find them very dangerous because the flash is very distracting at night. It is as bright as lightning and it would not suprise me if they have caused accidents.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Why should a private company share in the fines? There just something doesn't seem right with this arrangement..
      godabarb
      • 3 Years Ago
      i know those cameras make me pay attention - maybe I am the only one
      • 3 Years Ago
      "In reality, however, the incidences of cars speeding through intersections when the light is red is rare..." Evidently the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has not spent any time evaluating this problem in Phoenix, AZ. I can tell you for a fact that every day as I sit at an intersection waiting for the light to change I see at least one if not more, red light runners. Not a yellow light that turns in to red but cars that enter the intersection after the light has already changed to red. I can count at least one red light runner for every intersection I stop at. This is especially bad at the intersection leaving my neighborhood. So, don't tell me it is rare!
      philntx
      • 3 Years Ago
      More not less of these cameras are needed! Stupid, inattentive people driving through red lights, talking on phones, applying makeup, adjusting their vibrators. I drive 100 miles round trip every day. At least 3 times during a week I see an accident that has occurred in an intersection. Those are the only days that there is any physical proof of people running lights. People who complain about these lights have never had someone hit or almost hit them. IMHO: 50% of the problem is the impatience of American Drivers, 40% are distractions (phone, make, texting, sleeping, BJ's, etc), the other 10% are just "f'n" rude people/bullies who don't give a crap about any other drivers.
      • 3 Years Ago
      We have this retired County Judge suing the state for 3 red light tickets that his old wife received...Yes, that's right his wife got three red light tickets...She bitched and now he is suing cause they had to pay for three tickets...And mind you, 2 of those red light tickets were received by her at the same intersection...You would think that she would have learn her lesson the first time but she didn't when she got the second ticket at the same location...And then she got a third at another location...Now what does that tell you about her driving abilitly and her common sense...She is a bad driver to begin with even as we all know where these red light cameras are...And obliviously, the old battleaxe doesn't give a rats ass.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Of course the insurance companies endorse the red light cameras. Not for safety reasons but for profit reasons. Each ticket that these cameras process allow the insurance company to charge higher insurance rates because it is an additional point or two on each individual's DMV record; hence, higher insurance rates for the companies to make higher profit. Come on, do they really think we are that stupid? F the insurance companies and their input on this issue.
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