Red Light Cameras: Increasing Safety or Profits?

Nearly half of all states now allow surveillance cameras to capture red light runners. These “ticketing machines” may actually increase the rate of accidents.  Photo: sylvar

MICHIGAN, May 23, 2012 — “Big Brother” is hungry. The implementation of red-light cameras, or “automated enforcement devices,” has begun to metastasize like a cancer. Under the pretext of safety and the public interest, proponents have begun expanding the program, righteously declaring it as a means to protect life. Yet their claims have been refuted by pertinent scientific data, thus giving rise to uncertainty and skepticism. The immense sums of money generated from these ticketing machines have further inflamed the skepticism.

Red-light cameras, which are mounted on poles to record motorists running red lights, work through the use of sensors. These sensors are embedded in the road where the stop lines are located at the intersection. Once a car gets near the intersection, the sensors are activated, putting the cameras on alert. If one chooses to run a red light, the cameras will take two photos of the rear of the car; the first photo is captured once the back of the car is in front of the stop line and the second photo once the rear axle has crossed the stopped line and is actually in the intersection.  

Approximately half of the states have deployed red-light cameras. In 2000, only 25 cities had red-light cameras, whereas today, more than 500 cities have them. Some cities have broadened the scope of automated enforcement by also implementing speed cameras.  Baltimore, Seattle, and New York, for example, have red-light and speed cameras, providing motorist with little breathing room and heightened angst.        

City officials have installed red-light cameras for a variety of reasons. One justification is that the cameras help protect the lives of officers and other motorists as well as pedestrians. This is because an officer would also have to run a red light to catch a light-running perpetrator, thereby increasing the odds of endangering others in or near the intersection.

The other justification is that it is prohibitively expensive to physically police intersections on a regular basis. Instead, municipalities substitute human law enforcers with automated enforcers (surveillance cameras) to obviate the costs associated with having officers regularly monitor these intersections.

The core purpose though for the cameras, according to public officials, is no different that of any other road safety program, which is to promote and protect the safety and welfare of the community

This is perplexing. 

Drawing such a parallel between surveillance cameras mounted on poles and traditional road safety mechanisms such as seat belts, air bags, and crosswalk signals is unsound.  Cameras do not physically act to protect you in anyway during a collision, nor do they serve to guide traffic. They are simply “ticketing machines” that attempt to deter red light running through punishing fines. 

Since the proponents of red-light cameras have made safety the central argument for their implementation, it’s only fair to refer to studies to examine whether they are serving their intended purpose.

The Virginia Transportation Research Council conducted a seven-year study at 28 intersections with red light cameras in six jurisdictions in Northern Virginia. They found that the crash rate actually increased by 12 percent at these intersections after implementation of red-light cameras. It turned out that the cameras were a double-edged sword; red-light running crash rates decreased by 42 percent, but rear-end collisions increased 27 percent. The increase in total crashes, despite the significant reduction in red-light running crashes, was due to the fact that there were four times more rear end collisions than red-light running crashes. 

Surprisingly, the most telling aspect of this study was that half the jurisdictions experienced an increase in injuries from crashes after implementing red light cameras. The researchers concluded that “the study did not show a definitive safety benefit associated with camera installation with regard to all crash types, all crash severities, and all crash jurisdictions.”

An article published in the Journal of the Institute of Transport Engineers came to similar conclusions after researchers exhaustively reviewed data from at least seven different states to determine the effectiveness of red light cameras. They discovered that the cameras may substantially reduce red light running crashes, but they also may increase rear-end collisions, thus rarely reducing the total number of crashes by any significant measure. They concluded that cameras be used “to aid enforcement and should not be considered a substitute or proper traffic engineering or signalized intersections.” 

A 2005 investigative report on camera usage in the District of Columbia by the Washington Post is the most compelling in contradicting the notion that cameras promote public safety.  The study compared the rate of accidents at more than 30 intersections pre red-light camera (in 1998) and post red-light camera (in 2004). They determined that crash rates doubled, while the rate of injuries increased by 81 percent.     

What should we make of all these studies? One recurring theme in many of these studies is that red-light cameras do indeed reduce red-light running crashes, but at the same time increase rear-end collisions. Thus, the net total crashes remain unchanged, or in some circumstances, even increases. Rear-end collisions increased because motorists either forcefully applied their brakes to stop in time, or accelerated through a yellow light to avoid being photographed by the cameras.   

In fairness, there are studies that have shown that the cameras do reduce total crashes as well as rear-end crashes, but these are few. The preponderance of the evidence seems to show that red-light cameras are not making us safer, and may actually be causing more harm.

This begs a fundamental question: Why has there been such a propensity to deploy more red-light cameras when they could actually be detrimental? 

Red-light cameras are a money grab for cities and states, generating millions in revenues to cover holes in their budgets. Case in point is the city of Chicago, which has made approximately $61 million per year on average since implementing the program eight years ago. Last year, cameras at a single intersection in Chicago raked in more than $1.5 million by issuing over 18,000 red light tickets.   

In Louisiana, there was a 419 percent increase in revenues from red-light cameras since 2008; last year the state generated $18 million in revenue compared to the just $3.4 million generated in 2008. With such an upward trend in profits, it will be interesting to see how many more intersections have these ticketing machines installed in coming years.      

But one state has the distinction of having made the most handsome profits from the cameras: Texas. In 2009, the Lone Star State made $100 million from the cameras. This is egregious, especially since the City of Dallas was alleged to have shortened the duration time of yellow lights below the recommended bare minimum required by the Texas Department of Transportation.   

Even when accounting for the operating costs of the cameras, these cities are making bank. Typically, the cities enter into a contractual agreement with a company that installs and operates these cameras, and often the agreement is such that the company will get some portion of each ticket paid to the city. For example, if the fine for being photographed running a red light is set at $100 (which is not uncommon), then the company operating the cameras may receive $50 of that. So as long as the cameras keep flashing, the city and the vendors will profit. 

But all this discussion regarding revenue generated, and how vendors are being paid is irrelevant though because profit is not a motive … right? 

In a stunning exhibit of hypocrisy, the City of Los Angeles unanimously voted to scrap red-light cameras last July because they lost 1.5 million in revenues from them. Surely, if the top priority of these cameras was to promote the welfare and safety of the citizens, then they would have found a way to fund the program.

The District of Columbia’s implementation of red-light cameras is another example of how rhetoric doesn’t match action. Logically, it would seem that cameras would be installed at intersections where there are high rates of crashes due to red-light running, as this would seem to foster public safety. In D.C., however, authorities decided to install them at nine intersections that had two or fewer crashes annually in 1998 and 1999, the two years immediately preceding their installation. The crash rate cannot go down much lower in this case, so one begins to question the motives for having cameras situated at these intersections.

Red-light cameras should play no role in road-safety programs. They are an intrusive means of generating revenue under the guise of safety. True road safety programs would involve correctly synchronizing traffic signals, or altering the size of traffic signals. Perhaps increasing the duration of time of a yellow light, or delaying the time which a traffic light turns green after the light at the same intersection has turned red would help alleviate red-light running crash rates. Maybe increasing the size of traffic lights so they are easily visible and not obstructed could further help. 

Automated enforcement appears to be surveillance for profit and a concept that should be revisited.  


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Michael Janati

Michael Janati is a certified personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise, and CPR/AED certified through the American Red Cross.  He has an undergraduate degree in Psychology, and a Masters of Science in Health Promotion Management.

Michael has worked as a fitness manager for a large commercial gym, and has experience training a variety of clientele.  During his employment at an outpatient day program for clients diagnosed with severe mental illnesses, he conducted fitness outings and health/wellness groups.  There, he played an integral role in helping motivate clients to become active as a means of coping with their illnesses.

Michael is competitive in races, having successfully completed a half-marathon, sprint triathlon, an indoor triathlon, as well as a number of 5Ks.  He enjoys running, swimming, tennis, strength-training, flag football, and bowling.   

Currently, he resides in Michigan, where he is working towards his Juris Doctorate.



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