Is It Time to Stop Green-Lighting Red-Light Cameras?

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The number of local red-light camera contracts awarded around the country has exploded, from 155 in 2005 to 689 last year. The pitch to install the cameras is that it’s a win-win for municipalities, simultaneously saving them money while making intersections safer. But as red-light cameras spread, so does the skepticism.

For more than a year now, grassroots groups around the country have been trying to get red-light cameras removed from intersections, or to at least stop towns and counties from expanding red-light programs. This isn’t just a bunch of drivers annoyed that they got tickets either. The worst accusations claim that the cameras might, in fact, increase the number of accidents at traffic lights—read-end collisions in particular—and that the systems for awarding contracts and handing out tickets are corrupt to the core.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has announced that in June the city will be dropping its contract with Redflex, a Phoenix-based firm that operates 384 cameras in the city, due to what the Chicago Tribune described as “a $2 million bribery scheme involving the former Chicago official who oversaw the red light program for a decade.” Four Redflex executives resigned as a result of the scandal.

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Despite the controversy, the Orlando Sentinel reported earlier this month that Redflex is currently the frontrunner to be awarded a contract to operate red-light cameras in Orange County, Fla., which is seeking a $16 million expansion of its red-light program.

Putting aside the questionable manner in which cities and counties hand out red-light contracts, the larger issue is whether or not the traffic tickets generated by these cameras are fair, and whether or not the cameras actually make intersections safer. Consumer advocates have questions on both fronts, claiming that the cameras are installed for the sake of easy revenues, not better driver safety.

Drivers in California have been particularly angry about the red-light programs, which are known to dish out tickets for as much as $480 a pop.

That might be deemed a reasonable cost if the cameras were clearly improving safety. But do they? Last fall, a study by the New Jersey Department of Transportation revealed that accidents actually increased at intersections where the cameras were installed, apparently in large part because drivers had a tendency to brake hard at lights in order to avoid being captured on camera rolling through a “yellow-red” signal. According to the Star-Ledger:

Rear-end collisions at the intersections were up by 20 percent, from 286 the year before the cameras were installed to 343 the year after, according to the report made public yesterday. Overall, accidents increased from 577 crashes the year before the cameras were installed to 582 the year after.

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Nearly 500,000 drivers who received tickets via red-light cameras in New Jersey are now eligible for tiny refunds (a measly $6, after lawyers’ fees), thanks to a class-action lawsuit involving lights turned from yellow to red too quickly. The issue of too-short yellow lights isn’t limited to New Jersey. At the end of 2012, Collier County, Fla., voted to end its contract with a red-light camera company amid accusations of shortened yellow lights. The Naples News reported that in a recent hearing a Florida Highway patrol officer told commissioners that there was no change in the number of traffic crashes before and after the cameras were installed in Collier County, and that adjusting the timing of yellow lights would make the ticket system fairer.

A Wall Street Journal columnist recently focused on longer yellow lights—rather than more red-light cameras—as a means of making intersections safer:

Virtually all now understand that the best way to decrease crashes at problem intersections is a longer yellow. In Tampa, hundreds appear to have received tickets because a busy yellow was set at three seconds when the state minimum is 4.5. In Georgia, after a new state law adding a second to the yellow, several towns canceled their camera programs as no longer profitable.

Is that what these programs are really about? Being profitable? Not at all, defenders of the programs say. In a USA Today citing data indicating that there was a 24% decrease in accidents at Philadelphia intersections with red-light cameras, one expert said the following:

“Red-light cameras are a proven, effective enforcement tool, and they’re making intersections safer,” says Anne McCartt, senior vice president of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “It’s human behavior 101: When drivers know there’s a high likelihood of a ticket, they’re less likely to run red lights.”

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Drivers are also probably more likely to slam on the brakes when they see a video camera posted at a traffic light, especially if they know the light barely stays yellow before turning to red. And the cars behind the vehicles screeching to a halt aren’t likely to think this system makes intersections safer.