Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

Red light cameras are supposed to improve safety, but in 2013 their use actually went down. Are they on the wane? Our contributors give their insight.

Modesto, California has found that cameras may not be worth the trouble. They don’t monitor all the lanes at an intersection, most of the revenue goes to the vendor that operates the system, and the fines are shockingly high. And studies, including one of local Virginia jurisdictions, conclude the red light camera effect on safety is ambiguous. Should we fix the problems with cameras, or focus our efforts elsewhere?

Dan Malouff: Many people don’t like cameras because they intrude on our collective sense of entitlement to break traffic laws with impunity. But that entitlement should be intruded upon. Yes, governments should of course strive to get cameras right and deploy them fairly, but laws should be enforced. If it turns out that enforcing these laws is somehow unsafe (a claim I’m skeptical of), then the law should change, not the tactic of enforcing it.

Canaan Merchant: Data I’d seen before had convinced me of a red light camera’s effectiveness. This and other studies I’ve seen recently have cast some of that into doubt. Still, I think the problems that people have with automated traffic enforcement mainly stem from poor management in developing the systems, usually by just selecting a vendor without a clear oversight process, and problems that people have with due process once a ticket is issued.

The former should absolutely be an area of concern while the latter may just be indicative of problems that have always existed but ignored because an individual’s likelihood of getting a ticket was lower. If both of those issues are handled competently then I think camera enforcement will generally be a net-positive for a given intersection.

Still the best way to tackle the problem would be to make red lights more irrelevant. That means focusing on solutions that move people without requiring the use of a car.

Neil Flanagan: Traffic cameras, whether they’re at red lights or to control speeding, should always be a second choice. Better design of the roadway should always be the priority. Narrower lanes, neck-downs, medians, and shorter distances between intersections can discourage speeding and remind drivers that they’re approaching an intersection. Marking the pavement where a driver should brake if they see yellow might also help.

The goal should be to make intersections safe for all users, not uphold the law strictly. Starting from there, you can see another problem. Left out of this article, too, were non-motorists. Cars are engineered to protect drivers. The street is the only protection a pedestrian has.

That said, I’ll echo the sense of entitlement to the right-of-way. The top comments on the article are a slew of excuses for traffic violations, like this one by “Biceps:”

Perfect example: a co-worker of mine got a photo of herself from an RLC in the mail - it was *classic*. It was a perfect pic of her driving through the intersection, looking way to her left, mouth wide agape, with a cellphone right up against her head. She didn’t even remember running the light. It was a [expletive] awesome photo.”


It wasn’t her fault, he explains: she wasn’t trying to speed through the light, she just wasn’t paying attention! The engineer of the recent Metro-North accident was not given the same benefit of the doubt for spacing out, even though railroads are still safer per passenger-mile.

Adam Froehlig: I have always seen red light cameras as a local jurisdiction’s attempt to replace traffic enforcement with a revenue generation tool.  This is especially apparent in DC, where the revenues the cameras generate is well publicized and leads to much of the public angst against the program.  A well-designed program puts this revenue back into safety programs and street improvements, but DC simply adds it to its general fund.

The safety record of red light cameras is a bit mixed.  While they do help prevent the more serious right-angle crashes that often result in injuries and the occasional fatality, they can actually increase the overall crash rate due to rear-end crashes caused by the lead driver slamming on their brakes to avoid the red (and the camera ticket) and the driver behind them not stopping in time to avoid the rear-end crash.

Another item to consider:  due to legal reasons, the red light camera can only fine the owner of the vehicle, it cannot target the operator.  While the vehicle owner is usually the operator, this is not always a case.  Compare this with a law enforcement official pulling over a vehicle and issuing the driver a ticket, where the driver (if unsuccessful in their “defense”) will not only have to pay a fine, but will also lose points on their license.

While it helps reduce crash severity, it’s at best a mediocre replacement for an actual law enforcement official doing traffic enforcement.

Ben Ross: Surely the reason for rear end crashes at red light cameras is that the driver in the first car doesn’t expect the camera and then stops suddenly, and the driver in the second car also doesn’t expect the camera and is therefore unprepared for the first driver’s sudden maneuver. With more cameras these problems would vanish. It’s like with cyclists, there’s safety in numbers.

Abigail Zenner: Although I wish that red light and speed cameras were not needed, sadly drivers’ impatience has a tendency to cause very dangerous situations. We also see that law enforcement either cannot be everywhere all the time or cannot always pull over the driver who runs a red light. Drivers also complain that red light cameras catch legal right turns at some intersections, although I have often wondered if the driver came to a complete stop prior to the right turn.

I would love to see some more awareness campaigns on driver attentiveness and explain to drivers why we have the laws we do. Many times, impatient behavior by drivers actually slows traffic down and creates more hazard.

I am fascinated by some experiments, like the one in Texas that rewards drivers for good driving behavior with cash or prizes. Cameras could also provide these rewards. The winner of the VW Fun Theory contest had this idea to enroll good drivers in a lottery when caught driving at or below the speed limit. Maybe we can come up with more carrots and more education to balance out the stick of a ticket.

Jim Titus: Do you remember what it was like before the red-light cameras?

We had trains on tires.  Drivers regularly ran red lights as long as they were within 30 feet of the rear end of another car going through the intersection.  Drivers with a green light often had to edge their way into these trains of red-light runners. Most drivers in the District of Columbia stop at red lights now.

Maybe today, some tailgating distracted drivers rear-end cars that stop at yellow lights.  But in those days, people who stopped at newly red lights faced the same fate.