Remember the Traffic Light Monkey Man from Phoenix, the one who drives through red light cameras just to make a point? Well, all of your responses to our article got us thinking: Just what are the benefits and drawbacks of these cameras? Do they really improve our safety at intersections, or are they causing more harm than good? We decided to do some extensive research and find out.
The Green Light for Traffic Cameras
The outward intention of these red light cameras is to deter motorists from running red lights at intersections by imposing a “Big-Brother”-esque notion of always being watched with consequences attached, thereby decreasing the amount of accidents. According to numbers provided by the University of Tennessee Center for Transportation Research, accidents in Germantown, TN decreased by 18% in the first year of the camera program, and fell a further 18% within the following 8 years.
One argument for the effectiveness of traffic cameras is due to the fact that police officers can’t be everywhere at once. A National Institute for Highway Safety study “comparing large cities with red light cameras to those without found the devices reduced the fatal red light running crash rate by 24 percent and the rate of all types of fatal crashes at signalized intersections by 17 percent.” The same study showed that while the cameras did increase the likelihood of rear-end collisions due to drivers stopping short, they did reduce front-to-side collisions and overall injury crashes.
The idea is that these cameras are intended to deter violators, not catch them. By knowing that the cameras are up and working, drivers should be more careful to drive within the limits of the law, and obey the traffic signals more vigilantly.
Just Being Greedy?
Many people, however, believe that these photo enforcement systems are simply a way to generate additional revenue from traffic tickets, and call into question the legality of issuing a citation based upon a photo. According to the National Institute for Highway Safety, a ticket issued in Illinois from a camera violation results in a $250 fine or 25 hours of community service – over twice as much as any other state with auto-enforcement laws. USA Today reports that some cities’ contracts force them to share revenue with the camera vendor on a per-ticket basis or through a set percentage; “in other words, the more tickets a camera system issues, the more profit the vendor collects.”
Phineas Baxandall, who co-authored a report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, told USA Today, “It just creates this really broad incentive to fine as many people as you can. That’s not a good safety model.” New Jersey assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon calls them “automated taxing machines.” There have also been arguments that the cameras actually cause people to speed up to avoid triggering the photo, putting themselves and other motorists at even greater risk.
No Witness = No Proof
The National Motorists Association has a list of objections to photo-enforcement cameras, including the fact that “there is no certifiable witness to the alleged violation” and that “the driver of the vehicle is not positively identified.” As the Phoenix Monkey Man pointed out, the cameras identify drivers through a photo of the car’s license plate, assuming that the owner of the car is the one driving it, and only later is the photo of the driver compared with that of the owner’s driver’s license (oftentimes by a private company, and not the state’s DMV). If someone other than the owner of the car is driving, the wrong person is being ticketed. Motorists are also being ticketed for legal maneuvers, such as making a right turn on a red light without traffic interference (unless a “No Turn on Red” sign is clearly posted).
As a personal note on this story, I was the passenger in a vehicle which was stuck in the middle of an intersection turning left as the light turned to yellow and then red, due to an unforseen blockage of traffic ahead of us. The camera took a photo of the vehicle, even though we had entered the intersection well before the light had even turned yellow. A police officer could differentiate in that situation… a camera does not.
Support across the country seems to be dwindling for these supposed safety enhancers. In Boulder, Colorado, state Senator Scott Renfroe has sponsored a bill that would put legislation in place to eliminate and prohibit traffic light cameras altogether. He echoes the sentiment that these cameras do not, in fact, make the roads a safer place to be. “I think when you look at the role of government within this, we should be about safety and not about generating revenue,” Renfroe has stated. “And I think the data is really starting to fall out that red-light cameras are more of a revenue source than increase of safety.” In Los Angeles, a 2009 audit by the city controller found that 20 of the 32 intersections where red light cameras were installed had an increase in accidents; one intersection more than tripled its number of crashes. As of March 31, 2012, Los Angeles officially ended their foray into the controversial experiment, shutting down their red light camera program. A similar movement is being called for in Cleveland, and there are YouTube videos showing drivers how to doctor their cars to avoid being caught by the cameras.
Though there are numbers both supporting and rejecting the effectiveness of these cameras (depending upon the bias of the source), within the last 3-4 years, the popularity of the program seems to have diminished in the eye of the American public.