Red light cameras still popular with municipalities, but not drivers

By Mary Ebeling

Automobile drivers almost universally agree that red light running is unacceptable and dangerous, but many also admit being guilty of it. Almost half the states allow red light cameras and municipalities are increasingly installing red light cameras at intersections as tools to increase public safety. Red light running causes significant injuries and deaths each year. In 2010, 673 people died in crashes due to red light running and approximately 122,000 people were injured. Despite public pushback concerning the cameras and some hiccups with implementation, this technology should stay in place where it is established and be installed at problem intersections whenever possible.

Some special interest groups claim red light cameras are simply revenue tools for cities and do not improve safety. However, numerous studies show the safety benefits of using red light cameras. Studies completed by FHWA, the Texas Transportation Institute, and insurance industry groups document declines in the number and severity of right angle crashes, which account for 46 percent of intersection crashes and are the most dangerous type of intersection crashes.

Red light running is a major cause of intersection crashes in urban areas, affecting motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists. As more vulnerable road users, pedestrians and bicyclist are especially at risk.

Some drivers, not happy with the possibility of being ticketed for what they already know is dangerous, loudly complain about the cameras. Debates rage over the effectiveness and fairness of the devices. Fortunately, reliable evidence is emerging that shows the cameras successfully decrease red light running and increase public safety when properly installed.

Implementation varies by municipality. Some cities using shorter yellow signal phasing have experienced public resistance due to the increased tickets issued when the cameras trigger early. This practice, no longer in use, has added fuel to the accusation that cities are rigging the system to generate more revenue.

Research shows that red light cameras reduce violations, thereby reducing crashes and associated fatalities and injuries. The clear improvements in safety and traffic operations provide a benefit to the public and the best argument for accepting the utility of red light cameras.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.