Research Shows Tinkering With Red Light Cameras May Imperil Safety

Posted on August 21, 2013

Red light cameras are somewhat of a divisive topic in the state of California.  As a report from the Sacramento Bee a few weeks ago explains, cities throughout the state have started to back away from the usage of these cameras after encountering strong opposition to their adoption.  Many legal and privacy advocates believe that the lights violate a person’s rights.  Concerns led Los Angeles to shutter the cameras, and San Diego followed suit earlier this year.  The availability of the cameras now depends on the city you’re in at any given time.

Given the climate in California, citizens might be interested in research from the University of Tennessee depicted in a new report form NPR.  The study, which can be found in next month’s issue of Transport Policy, takes a closer look at some of the sometimes dangerous methods that cities are putting into practice to get more out of their red light cameras.

The researchers noted that, over the course of time, municipalities basically have to tinker with red light cameras if they’re going to catch offenders.  One researcher compared things to a swear jar.  Once it gets put in, the jar fills up quickly as cursing parties place their money inside.  But over time, the intake of the jar decreases as people grow wise to the system.

So it goes with red light cameras.  When they go in, numerous offenders are caught.  Thus, the effort is deemed a success and generates revenue derived from tickets.  But people who use the intersection regularly will soon stop running the red light out of fear of getting a ticket.  And as a result, the number of tickets will decline and cities will lose out on the money derived from those citations.

The researchers have noted the ways that cities will reconfigure the red light cameras so that they’re able to continue to catch high amounts of drivers.  Unfortunately, some of these methods could come at the cost of safety.

Some cities might be tempted to actually increase the speed limit in the vicinity.  When that occurs, it puts drivers in a precarious position where they either have to run a light or risk slamming on their brakes, being struck by the vehicle behind them or coming to a halt while jutting into an intersection.  The amount of time that a yellow light stays lit might also be reduced, which limits the time that a driver has to safely cross the intersection.  Some cities might take away signs explaining that a lighted intersection is upcoming.  Any of these situations could contribute to a crash.

We hope that any city or state that sets up red light cameras doesn’t seek to raise revenue at the cost of drivers’ wellbeing.

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