Atlantic Cities

The War on Red-Light Cameras

The War on Red-Light Cameras
Photo by Flickr user functoruser, used under a Creative Commons license

Late last month, after a drawn-out battle dating back to November, Houston finally turned off its 70 red-light cameras. City residents voted them down in a referendum during the midterm elections, then a federal judge deemed the ballot illegal and the cameras clicked back on — only to go off again this summer, at the order of Mayor Annise Parker.

The situation that unfolded in Houston was certainly unique, but the city isn't alone in its disapproval of red-light cameras. Earlier this summer, Los Angeles pulled the plug from cameras above its intersections, largely because city officials failed to enforce the tickets that were issued. In 2007, the Minnesota Supreme Court determined that red-light cameras in Minneapolis violated a car owner's "presumption of innocence." A number of states have banned the technology entirely.

Opponents of red-light cameras, like Gary Biller of the National Motorists Association, believe the anti-camera trend will spread to other cities:

"It's going to be gradual though. I think it's going to be a long battle," said Biller, whose Wisconsin-based group supports motorists' freedoms and rights. "We're seeing cities like Houston, Los Angeles, very prominent examples of cities voting down cameras."

If there is a battle, it will certainly be long. While a few cities have bailed on the cameras, hundreds of other communities around the country still use them. And most seem quite content to continue. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently surveyed attitudes toward red-light cameras in 14 large cities that use them, including Chicago, Baltimore, San Diego, Portland, and Washington, D.C., and the results lean clearly toward public approval (PDF):

About two-thirds of drivers in the 14 cities combined favor cameras; 42 percent strongly favor them. The top reasons for supporting camera enforcement were that it increases safety (61 percent), that it effectively deters red light running (24 percent), and that it enforces the law all the time, even when police cannot be there (22 percent). More than one quarter of drivers oppose red light cameras, and 18 percent strongly oppose them.  Asked why they oppose cameras, drivers most often said that cameras can make mistakes (26 percent), are used to generate revenue for governments rather than for safety (26 percent), lead to more crashes because drivers speed up to beat the red light or stop suddenly and are rear-ended (19 percent), or are an invasion of privacy (17 percent).

At the heart of the debate is whether or not the cameras truly make city streets safer. A lot of evidence suggests they do. New research from the Texas Transportation Institute examined accident data from 275 intersections with red-light cameras and found an 11 percent drop in overall crashes, and a 25 percent drop in red light-related accidents, when compared with accident data prior to camera installation. Another report from earlier this year concluded that the fatality rate for red light-related crashes was 24 percent lower [PDF] in cities with cameras than in those without them.

Still, the science is far from settled. While red-light cameras make some intersections safer from serious or fatal accidents, they may cause an increase in rear-end collisions, according to a 2005 Department of Transportation study. This makes sense: many people speed through a camera intersection to make the light then hit the brakes on the other side, without realizing the car behind them is doing the same thing. Two other recent studies — one from Washington, D.C., and another in Louisiana — determined that cameras had no impact on the safety of an intersection at all.

In other words, whatever you want to see in the red-light camera safety research, you can see in the red-light camera safety research. That makes for some fiery debate about their legitimacy — particularly in tough economic times. Drivers see tickets they don't want to pay, and cities see revenue they don't want to lose (plus additional money spent on traffic enforcement). Red-light cameras were a hot-button issue during the midterms in many places besides Houston, and logic suggests they will be again next November. Whether or not more cities ultimately go the way of Houston and Los Angeles, it stands to reason that many will try.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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