If you live in larger urban areas, chances are you’ve encountered a traffic light camera – and hopefully not in the “oops, it got me, gonna get a ticket” way. Automated traffic light cameras – triggered when cars go through an intersection after a yellow light has turned red – are a fairly common tool used by law enforcement to punish careless or reckless drivers, as well as deter drivers from stomping on the accelerator when the light turns yellow. Less common are speed enforcement cameras, which use the same technology to capture images of cars breaking local speed limit laws. In theory, these sound like a good idea, but do automated speed enforcement cameras actually curb drivers’ bad habits? And can they actually save lives? A study released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety this week says “yes”.
The IIHS looked at the results of speed enforcement cameras placed throughout Montgomery County in Maryland. The area is part of the Washington D.C. commuting corridor, and has a robust automated camera program, with over 90 fixed and mobile speed cameras operating at any given time. Law enforcement agencies in Montgomery County have used these cameras since 2007, and have devised some efficient methods of deploying them. The most effective? Establishing “speed camera corridors”: placing cameras along lengthy stretches of road rather and altering their location along those corridors, rather than simply leaving them in one fixed spot. By doing so, drivers won’t know exactly where the cameras are – and will be less likely to speed, since they run the risk of triggering an unseen camera. Since the goal is to deter speeding, it makes sense to let drivers know that they could be caught on camera; signs along Montgomery County roads inform drivers that they are passing through a Speed Camera Corridor.
By all accounts, the program has been a success. 95% of the drivers surveyed indicated that they were aware that the cameras are in use on Montgomery County roads – and 75% said that they have reduced their speed because of this. Researchers stated that the cameras have reduced the likelihood of a driver speeding by 59% – and because of that, the likelihood that crashes on those roads would involved a death or debilitating injury has been reduced by 19%. The most telling statistic? 62% of the drivers surveyed favored the program, despite the fact that 59% of those drivers had actually received a speed camera ticket. Better still, there seems to be a ripple effect; researchers indicate that drivers were also slowing down on nearby roads that did not have cameras deployed along them.
It seems that this program has been been successful, both in changing Montgomery County drivers’ behavior as well as their attitudes towards automated speed enforcement cameras. But getting other states to buy into similar programs may be a challenge. The system is controversial; opponents argue that the automated cameras are unreliable and can malfunction, and that municipalities may simply be using them as a means of increasing income via fines. Thirteen states have either prohibited the use of such cameras outright, or have placed restrictions on where and how they can be used. Only 138 communities in the U.S. use them. The numbers in the IIHS speed camera study are compelling, however, and should serve to bolster the efforts of legislators and law enforcement officials who are looking to roll out speed enforcement cameras in their neighborhoods.