There’s No Doubt: Traffic Enforcement Cameras Save Lives

A 2011 study by Insurance Institute for Highway Safety comparing cities with red light cameras to those without them found that in the 14 largest U.S. cities, the cameras reduced fatal red-light-running collisions by 24 percent. ##http://usa.streetsblog.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2013/05/IIHS_study.gif##Click to enlarge##. Image: ##http://www.iihs.org/externaldata/srdata/docs/sr4601.pdf##IIHS##

Gawker dished out some richly-deserved ridicule to Tennessee State Senator Jon Lundberg yesterday, following reports that he is co-sponsoring legislation to outlaw the specific speeding camera that nabbed him doing 60 in a 45 zone last October. Lundberg denied that the incident had any impact on his decision to sponsor in the legislation, and contested the violation to boot.

But the case is a telling one. State governments around the country have demonstrated hostility to automated enforcement programs. Twelve states specifically forbid the use of speed enforcement cameras, except in very limited circumstances, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Nine states prohibit red light cameras. Others, like New York, have yet to enact legislation that would enable cities to use these traffic enforcement tools.

A proposed ban in Iowa failed narrowly in the Senate last year and one is currently under consideration in Ohio.

The Ohio legislation, framed as a defense of due process and privacy, has received mostly favorable coverage in the press and has enjoyed the support of groups like the Ohio ACLU and Ohio PIRG. One Ohio PIRG official characterized speed cameras as “cash cows designed to rip off drivers.” Ohio Lawmaker Ron Hood went so far as to assert that red light cameras are themselves a safety hazard.

Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute on Highway Safety, told the Washington Post last year that these kind of debates tend to get distorted: “Somehow, the people who get tickets because they have broken the law have been cast as the victims.”

Lost in these debates is the fact that automated enforcement saves lives. A 2011 study by IIHS comparing cities with red light cameras to those without them found that in the 14 largest U.S. cities, the cameras reduced fatal red-light-running collisions by 24 percent. Even more impressive, they seemed to promote safe driver behavior more generally. The researchers found that cities with red light cameras saw 17 percent fewer fatal crashes at signalized intersections, per capita, than cities without cameras.

Between 2004 and 2008, that added up to 159 lives saved in those 14 cities alone. If automated enforcement had been installed in all 99 of the U.S. cities with populations over 200,000, some 815 lives would have been saved over those four years, the report found.

More than a dozen states have outlawed using cameras to enforce speed limits or red lights. The red and green areas of the map show where camera enforcement is in effect. Image: ##http://www.iihs.org/laws/cameramap.aspx##Insurance Institute for Highway Safety##

Russ Rader, vice president for communications for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, calls the backlash “a lot of hot air from a vocal minority.” According to Rader, the debate about whether traffic cameras improve safety is settled.

“Study after study demonstrates that automated traffic enforcement works to make streets safer,” he said.

As for the claim that speed cameras are unsafe, Rader says that’s simply “not true.”

“That’s not supported by any of the research that has been done by traffic safety experts, the federal government, and universities,” he said.

A few studies have found that red light cameras do increase rear end collisions, but the data is not consistent. In addition, these types of collisions tend to be minor fender-benders, which pose far smaller risks than the type of high-speed, side-impact collisions that the cameras prevent, says Kara Macek, a spokeswoman with the Governors Highway Safety Association.

“I know it’s a contentious issue,” she said. “But typically the arguments against it — ‘It’s a revenue generator,’ ‘It’s a privacy concern’ — are outweighed by the safety benefits.”

Macek’s organization recommends some precautions that can help communities avoid controversies like the one in Ohio. Macek says cameras should only be installed in problem areas, like dangerous intersections, and only after a public information campaign. The GHSA also recommends that all revenues from the ticketing be returned to programs that improve street safety.

Macek added that the cameras are an important tool for communities, especially as resources for law enforcement become more strained.

In Ohio, irate drivers have tended to drown out messages like that. But local governments, law enforcement agencies, and victims’ advocates have testified that an outright ban on automated traffic enforcement would be a major setback.

Officials from the Toledo Police Department reported a noticeable decrease in traffic collisions after the cameras were installed. The city of Akron, which instituted the program after a 10-year-old boy was killed, uses the cameras only in school zones. All of the half million dollars generated was used to support child safety programs in that city, officials say.

Meanwhile, at a recent hearing in Columbus, Sue Oberhauser, co-chair of a national group that advocates for traffic safety, spoke for victims who can’t testify — including her daughter, who was killed by a reckless driver.

“If our daughter Sarah could be here today, she would ask each of you, ‘What about my right to live my life and raise my children?'” Oberhauser said, according to a report in the Plain Dealer. “She cannot be here today because she was killed by a man running a light at 55 miles per hour.”

  • Dennis Hindman

    For the Los Angeles County Metro transit agency traffic enforcement cameras have been proven to reduce the rate of collisions on their rail and bus lines.

    There are loop detectors placed in the traffic lanes where these cameras are needed for enforcement. To reduce the number of violators turning right on a red light along the Orange Line BRT, loop detectors are installed in these right-turn only lanes that will activate the cameras when the violation takes place.

    http://media.metro.net/board/Items/2012/02_february/20120216OPItem47.pdf

  • jb

    You copypasted this twice, but somehow forgot to add the source, which appears to be this PDF

    I especially like this part:
    “The sole purpose for implementing a RLPE program at Metro was to enhance safety by achieving a reduction in collisions.”

    If the cameras work, then they should no longer bring in money. Good. I hope they do work.

    Now compare that to the city contract with Arizona-based ATS, who moved the cameras to different intersections if they didn’t get the expected revenue.

  • jb

    As I said, I’m basically neutral on automatic enforcement. If Metro’s system is working – and therefore bringing in ever less money year over year- then that’s awesome, and I hope MTA makes all their data available. I’m happy to spend tax money if there’s good evidence for something that works.

    Now compare it to the private systems which are not deployed at the intersections where they’re most useful for public safety, like train crossings, but the ones where they’re most profitable. And compare MTA’s deliberately money-losing system to the private ones which resulted in shorter yellow light times in Florida.

  • Dennis Hindman

    The Los Angeles County Metro traffic enforcement cameras are owned and operated by a private contractor.

    I’ve seen the traffic enforcement cameras activated dozens of times along the Orange Line BRT corridor by drivers and the motorist was in violation in every single instance.

  • jb

    Then as I said, I hope the MTA releases all their data, including the full amount being paid to the private contractor per violation.

    I really don’t care about anecdotal evidence. I’ve seen traffic enforcement cameras activated by people who covered their face and gunned it when they knew the flash was coming. I’ve seen people screech to a dangerous halt at a fresh yellow, forcing people behind them to skid. Have I proved the camera’s are unsafe? No.

    I prefer making public policy based on good data. Let’s see it.

  • TSMinor

    That’s the simplistic, non-thinking response. The objections are not whether speeding is or isn’t an infraction, but a reasonable expectation for law and due process to be upheld. The process used with these programs, especially Optotraffic (Maryland) violates standing laws on several levels. It preys upon honest citizens’ sense of fairness and tricks them into thinking a “Notice of Liability” is a moving violation or traffic citation. It is neither. It also tricks them into believing an “administrative hearing” is what they expect to be a normal court process. It isn’t. Only when the county courts become so overburdened with legitimate claims, backed with credible support for the errors of the speed monitoring systems and violations of due process that follow, will these small towns be coerced to discontinue.

  • jb

    “From an engineering standpoint, we know the locations we would want are different than what the [camera] vendor would want,” said Stephen Yanez, a Downey engineer. “They are basically looking for locations that have a high violation rate. We are looking for locations with a high collision rate. . . . Collision rate is not necessarily related to violation rate.”

    Using cameras to police right turns offers a “tremendous opportunity for revenue” because the violation is common, he said. But he added that the turns involve relatively little accident risk.

    “That’s why people are doing it,” he said. Downey turned down a red light camera proposal because of uncertainty about the effects on traffic safety and revenue, records show.

  • LinuxGuy

    Set speed limits to the 85th percentile free-flowing traffic speed, use longer yellows, decent length all-red intervals, and sensors to keep the all-red. Problems vanish. Also need to ticket well after red, not 0.00001 sec. Most tickets are for non-complete stop for right on red or stopping past the stop line
    anyway. Don’t need cameras.

    Same for speed cameras, increase speed limits and speed cushions.

    I hope officials realizes that when people are involved in crashes due to poor engineering and predatory enforcement, they will not be pleased. Same for the money it costs people. What about violating peoples’ constitutional rights? Did
    they run this stuff by the ACLU or the National Motorists
    Association.

  • 3boys

    The real problem is that speeding cameras don’t catch actual speeders but just people who lack the knowledge to know where the cameras are. I’ve driven in many places such as LA with red-light cameras without a problem. I naturally drive so slow as to be annoying to other drivers. Upon entering a city that I don’t usually drive in I look to the local drivers to figure out how fast to drive. People in LA drive a reasonable speed while people in VA/DC/MD drive like madmen. I got a 37 in a 25 ticket in a underpass in DC which is more of an indication of just how slow I drive then an indication that I’m a speeder. Until the cameras can make everyone, locals included, slow down for their entire trip and not just seconds before the camera, then it’s nothing more than robbery. Later, driving the speed limit in Maryland really angered the local drivers prior to my getting a speeding ticket for being from a state without front license plates. The officer was ignoring all the locals who were greatly exceeding the limit and lied about my speed with impunity. VA/DC/MD is acting like a third world country.

  • Adam Jankowski

    Its not about keeping people safe, its about the money. Same with the drug war, war on terror, and most other criminal offenses where no one is hurt.

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