Vox Pulls Back the Curtain on “Scam” to Save Lives With Red Light Cameras

You can usually count on Vox for accurate, research-based explainers of public policy issues. That’s why the new Vox video on red light cameras is so monumentally disappointing.

Researchers have established that red light cameras make streets safer by reducing potentially fatal T-bone collisions, though they do lead to more rear-end crashes, which tend not to be very serious. But motorists upset about receiving fines for dangerous driving mobilize tenaciously against automated enforcement. The use of red light cameras in Colorado, for instance, is consistently under siege in the state legislature. They are currently outlawed in more than a dozen states.

Campaigns against automated enforcement could hardly ask for better propaganda than this Vox video. Here’s a look at what’s so wrong with it.

1. Red light cameras save lives — but who cares?

Once you get past the click-bait title, “Why Red Light Cameras Are a Scam,” the piece starts out well. There are more than 30,000 traffic deaths every year in the USA, we’re told, and “23 percent are intersection related.” Vox also notes that the cameras reduce T-bone collisions and that they “really can and do save lives” — but for some reason this is immediately overshadowed in the video by the increase in less deadly rear-end fender-benders.

And that’s all we hear about the benefits of the cameras. The life-saving effect is treated as an aside at the very beginning before delving into the sinister drawbacks.

2. Cities make money from cameras — but cameras also cost cities money!

Cities around the country “bring in millions of dollars in fines” from the cameras, the narrator says. Camera companies also have “incentives to get a lot of contracts” to install and maintain the cameras, which in turn “costs cities millions of dollars.”

These criticisms are in direct tension. Are the cameras a cash grab or do they cost cities money? It can’t be both.

But the real problem is that Vox has sensationalized a typical way that governments procure things they can’t make or do themselves.

You could make similar observations about Breathalyzer manufacturers, for instance. Governments collect fines from drunk driving citations, and companies that make Breathalyzers turn profits from government contracts, which consume some small share of the public budget. Does that make drunk driving enforcement “a scam”?

3. There was corruption in Chicago involving red light cameras

In Chicago, a city official was convicted of taking bribes from a camera company, and the company in question may have bribed other city officials.

Government corruption is bad, of course, and this case in Chicago justifiably undermined public confidence in the city’s automated enforcement program. But is the automated enforcement business more prone to corruption than any other aspect of local government, like training school principals or procuring lumber? Vox provides no evidence that it is.

Vox never mentions that there are ways to assess how a particular city’s cameras affect safety and whether they change motorist behavior. In New York, for instance, the number of red light violations at locations with cameras has declined over time, a sign that more drivers are obeying the law (the increase in 2008 happened when 50 cameras were added to the program):

Graph: NYC Mayor’s Office

No doubt, some red light camera programs are designed and run better than others. Vox could have explained the difference. Instead it produced a video that plays right into some motorists’ belief that they have a “right” not to be fined for breaking the law.

  • farazs

    So when you say `pragmatic’, do you mean `bad at driving’ or `incapable of critical thought’? Because a pragmatic driver would acknowledge their mistakes and attempt to rectify them, instead of blaming heaven and hell. They would address factors which are immediately under their own control.

    A simple head-check for cross-traffic and waiting for the intersection to clear is the best defence against being t-boned by someone trying to beat a red-light – and voila its no longer a life-or-death situation. Yes, you can still be hit by someone who charges in a whole 5 seconds after the light turns, but that is because there is plenty of drivers who are as `pragmatic’ (sic) like you and wholly incapable of taking responsibility for their actions.

    Any approach that is based on determining whether on not you can get through on amber is flawed. The only to question to ask is if you can stop safely in the space available. If you ask the wrong question, no wonder you’d get the wrong answer. Your question is wrong because it presumes that throughput/efficiency are more important than safety. Given their history, the FHWA is expected to come up with ham-handed approaches. If they were good at their job, we wouldn’t be averaging 30k+ deaths on their watch, now would we?

  • Prinzrob

    Yes, and the technology is employed in many US cities as well, including in Pleasanton where this woman was killed. Either that particular intersection had not been upgraded yet, or the signal was not configured correctly, or something even more innocuous like the video camera lens being smudged/dirty and keeping it from detecting bikes.

  • Miles Bader

    The problem with red lights cameras as an issue is that they shine a light into a dark corner of contemporary american society that many people—be they conservative, liberal, or whatever—would just as soon be kept unexposed. Americans in general are dependent on cars, know little else, and because of the way the American landscape has evolved often have little choice in this. They rationalize away the problems because how can you question such an integral part of life?

    So it’s not entirely surprising that even “the good guys” often buy into the odd conspiracy theories and other desperate rationalization that typify anti-red-light-camera movement.

  • kastigar

    Rear-end collisions aren’t caused by red-light cameras. The cause is drivers following too closely. Remember drivers-ed? Stay one-car-length behind for every 10 MPH plus one more car length. That’s 4 car lengths in a 30 MPH zone. That will end rear-end collisions.

  • Aids To Navigation (such as #StopGoLine) give people information so that they can make safer choices.

    Enforcement must never outweigh tools which enable people with better choices otherwise you don’t have a free country, you have a police state.

  • You call arguing in favor of enabling drivers with tools to make safer choices and saving lives a straw man tactic?

  • Sorry, not trying to be vague. I thought the term “Aids to navigation” was self explanatory.

    Lane markers (for example) are aids to navigation which give drivers the necessary tools (aka; objects or information) they need to avoid crashing into parallel traffic.

    Many more drivers would have a greater ability to make safer choices if we installed a #StopGoLine which establishes a fixed decision point for the onset of the yellow traffic signal. (See CivilLiberty101.com for details)

    In a free society, stronger law enforcement tactics should be balanced by strategies that enable drivers with a greater ability to obey. #StopGoLine is such a strategy

  • Yes! Absolutely, IF we could find a way to ensure everyone would drive this way, we could eliminate rear end collisions.

    As Thornton Melon would say “you must be driving in fantasyland”.

    The reality of doing business in the real world is that people (especially free people) are not robots.

    We should not strictly rely on strict rules that don’t work in the real world. We should also consider adding signs and signals that enable more drivers to make safer choices.

    Many drivers who panic and stop too short intersections do so because they fear disobeying the law. (Increased rear end collisions at intersections with red light cameras proves this.)

    (regardless of who is to blame) Each one of these drivers that we educate and enable (with signals encouraging clear the intersection safely) represents one less rear end collision.

    If we can put a man on the moon in ten years, we should set a goal for #StopGoLine to eliminate 100% of these types of collisions in five.

  • Alicia

    Nope. Go back and read, and then you might figure out what statements you made that are straw man arguments – unless, that is, your reading comprehension is as piss-poor as your web design skills.

  • Thanks for the heads up regarding HTML.
    I found this website:

    Regarding design of our website, you should know that it’s a darn good job for people whos greatest artistic accomplishments are stick figures and ash trays.

    We are more than willing to take advice on content and design. Thanks

  • My conversation is strictly about improving safety.
    All other discussion is a waste of time.
    Unless of course you are willing to help me with my reading disability and my piss-poor web design skills.

  • Farazs, Why don’t we just stick to the subject of improving safety? What’s wrong with that?

  • Or: “Why red light cameras have little or nothing to do with safety” lol

  • Dilemma Zone Detection Systems utilize expensive computers and sensing equipment to extend the green when they estimate (Guess) if vehicles are in the dilemma zone. (Accommodating the dilemma in the safety plan is the silliest -and most expensive- idea on the planet)

    #StopGoLine on CivilLiberty101.com is devoted to eliminating the dilemma by marking the braking distance required by the heaviest vehicle rated to be on the road at the speed limit. Your focus should be to clear that zone safely if your in it when the light turns yellow. Alternatively, if the 18 wheeler has distance to stop then you have no excuse if you are behind that line when the yellow illuminates.

    The yellow should (ideally) be timed to allow the last car in line to clear the stop bar and the next car sees red. As technology improves, this strategy also improves.

  • Do you have a link to that study?

  • It’s that “nanosecond” that should raise concern of all red blooded Americans.

    It’s insane to think the human mind can be held to the same standard as digital equipment. (especially when we don’t have a (#StopGoLine) line in the sand that says Stop if you don’t reach this point by the time the light turns yellow).

  • I know people who have been fined because their front wheel was less than 12 inches from the stop bar when the light turned red.

    How much time did they miss the light by if they were traveling in a 50 mph zone? (the question is rhetorical)

  • Matt Florell
  • I love it when debaters include the link (shows class).

    Matt, since you’ve read most of the studies, what’s your opinion of “the halo effect”?

    Isn’t it a violation of the fundamental laws of science to say the placebo cures the disease?

    How do red light running rates go down at control site intersections (where there are no cameras)?

    I’ll give you a hint. It’s the same reason why rear end collisions go up.

    It’s not the cameras that causes behavior change, it’s the fear the advertising program introduces into society.

    This same fear causes drivers to panic and initiate rear end collisions.

    My point is that it’s wrong to give credit to the cameras as a “safety” tool. They are pure enforcement tools.

    In other words, we would have the same statistical results if we sent goon squads out to wake you up, beat you to a pulp and warn you not to run red lights.

    The question for people concerned with civil liberty is: Should fear be the first resort for law enforcement in a free society or the last?

  • Matt Florell

    At least in the case of Red Light Cameras, the “halo effect” doesn’t exist. The evidence simply doesn’t support it. For every correlation you find showing it, there is another data set that disproves it, and that means it can’t be a rule.

  • The study you referenced also says “there was a 1% decrease in total crashes across this study at RLC-enabled intersections”

    1% decrease in total crashes Seriously? All this pain for a 1% decrease in crashes.

    Our argument is that a #StopGoLine will enable 100% of all drivers who want to obey the law with a perfect ability to do so 100% of the time.

    Also, a #StopGoLine will enable law enforcement to perfectly identify those who had a fair method to obey the law but decided to run the light anyway.

    A #StopGoLine removes all doubt of innocence or guilt because it is a definitive decision point which is highly visible to drivers far in advance of the time they actually need to make the decision.

    This concept has the potential to reduce or eliminate: all rear end and tee collisions at signalized intersections.

    Northeastern University considers this concept worthy of study and is looking for funding.

    It’s a crime if any red light camera money is diverted away from this kind of research.

  • Thanks but that’s not my point.
    There are studies that indicate significantly statistical changes at control sites. Those studies give credit to the cameras for that change.

    I’m saying it’s fraud to do so (because they are violating the laws of statistical analysis).

    If that’s the case, then the people who performed those studies have violated federal law against research misconduct and that may be another strategy to use in fighting these cameras.

  • What do you think about this:
    Any RLC revenue not used to study the aids to navigation which drivers need to make safer decisions (Like paint and signs used to indicate a #StopGoLine) is blood money because they are perpetuating a flaw in safety for profit.

    RE: “long after the community has learned to obey traffic rule X”

    Can you tell me how fines help you guess better at the yellow?

  • The problem won’t go away because sudden stopping occurs in states that do not have RLC’s.

    The true cause of sudden stopping is when drivers are unaware of their rights and responsibilities (to either proceed or stop). This causes drivers to stop short out of fear. RLC’s aggravate this condition. RLC’s cause more drivers to panic and that’s why rear end collisions increase in cities with RLC installations.

    This is because the yellow light law is ambiguous. (every state has it’s own definition).

    Interestingly, the red light means stop everywhere in the world.

    It’s high time we use a #StopGoLine to standardize how the yellow light is defined – everywhere in the world.

    Every driver inside the #StopGoLine at the onset of yellow should know they have a right to proceed if they can clear the intersection safely.

  • There is no rule “stop on yellow”. The rule is “stop on red”.

    The yellow light actually is defined differently in every state.

    RE: shorter yellow phases.
    You hit the nail on the head. The question is “how do we get there”?

    CivilLiberty101.com’s #StopGoLine is one strategy designed to accomplish that goal. Will you support our effort by signing our petition?

  • CivilLiberty101.com’s #StopGoLine strategy shortens the yellow but increases the all red by the reduced amount. The total time to cross the intersection isn’t changed.

    Additionally, we believe the pedestrian crossing signal should be changed back to the old standard (Both red and yellow illuminated simultaneously) during which period all “right on red” privileges are suspended. Timing of this period should be designed to give pedestrians and bicycles maximum protection. (While this works great in rural areas and small cities where pedestrian crossing is sporatic, Big cities like NYC have a problem with this strategy because pedestrians are constantly crossing)

  • The function of the yellow is to warn that the red is imminent. (Yes that’s a vague and ambiguous definition).
    A blinking green is a warning of a warning (Warning squared).

    A better system is to give drivers a #StopGoLine which defines the distance vehicles can safely travel (at the speed limit) during the yellow phase – and cross the stop bar before the light turns red. Alternatively, all traffic behind the line when the light turns yellow should see red when they get to the stop bar.

    Count down lights are better than nothing but they are still arbitrary because they depend on the drivers opinion of how much ground he can cover in that given period of time. If he thinks he can make it but he’s the least bit unsure he will accelerate to ensure success. (That’s not dishonesty, it’s confusion).

    Let’s eliminate the confusion and provide drivers with a certainty.

  • You hit the nail on the head in identifying one of the key flaws in our safety plan. (Every yellow light is timed differently and this leave drivers helpless to make certain decisions).

    However: Time flies when your having fun is a fundamental law of human nature.

    This means all pure time solutions will fail depending on how the drivers stress level affects his ability to perceive time.

    The #StopGoLine solves this problem because it defines the distance the 18 wheeler needs to brake safely. If your inside this brake zone when the light turns yellow then you should be encouraged by law to do everything reasonable to clear the intersection safely. If your behind the line then you have no excuse for not stopping.

    If a #StopGoLine is properly installed, I have no problem with towns that issue fines of $1,000 or more for people who run red lights.

  • In fact the MUTCD defines rights under the yellow as being the same as the preceding signal. (I forget the exact wording)

  • Again, you have succinctly identified a core flaw in our safety plan (everyone has a different opinion of what the yellow light means).

    The only way to solve this problem is to establish a fixed decision point like we have suggested above.

  • RE: when driverless cars become widespread ~ everyone will be much safer in the end.

    LOL: You have a lot more confidence in technology than I do.

    I can’t any safety Vs failure studies done on the automated container ports in Rotterdam that have been operating for decades.

  • Don’t you see how your definition of the yellow is subjective?
    Why should my safety rely on your opinion? Why should your safety rely on anyone else’s opinion? (Who do you trust that much?)

    Why not draw a line in the sand and say: If you cross this point before the light turns yellow then you are encouraged by law to clear the intersection safely if you can.

    Alternatively, everyone who doesn’t cross the line before the light turns yellow instantly knows -without any question- that they are required to stop.

    What’s wrong with that idea?
    (Yes we know it’s challenged in inner city congestion situations but technology can solve that problem)

  • The #StopGoLine specifically accommodates the safe braking distance required by the heaviest vehicle rated to be on the road at the speed limit. It objectively defines when it is safe to stop and when it is not.

  • Two wrongs don’t make a right (they make two wrongs)

    You should never put yourself at risk just because of another drivers bad habits and we should never suggest others do that either.

    The #StopGoLine problem eliminates this issue entirely because all drivers know their rights (to proceed safely) and responsibilities (to stop) based on their position relative to the line when the light turns yellow.

    Stopping short should only occur for real emergencies not because you think you should stop because you can.

  • Alicia

    All it takes is not inventing straw man arguments. That’s a matter of being honest, and only you can decide whether you want to take the time to do that or not.

  • There absolutely *is* a rule “stop on amber”…but as you point out, its not true in all states.

  • Driving relies on a drivers judgement all the time.

    Your example isn’t flexible enough for all situations, this is why we have driver judgement.

    Okay, we have a busy day, some crash, or construction, or other cause of congestion. The road is a 70 km/h (55 mph) road, put the “stop if before this line” sufficiently far back that a driver traveling at that speed (or 10% over) can safely stop. But today, in the congestion, this means that there are probably 10 or 15 cars sitting after that line waiting for traffic to clear. The light turns yellow, then red…should those cars proceed through the intersection?

  • Could you please show links to those laws.

    This link shows that “most” places do not have the same definition of yellow/

    http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/nchrp/nchrp_rpt_731.pdf Appendix C Definition of Yellow Signal for Vehicles by State

    The true fact is that every state has it’s own definition of what the yellow light means.

    Are Americans who are free to travel the world to remember 50 different definitions of the yellow in this country alone?

    Alternatively, Red means stop everywhere in the world.

    What would happen if Red did not mean stop anywhere in the world? Can you imagine the calamity?

    CivilLIberty101.com argues that yellow needs to have one definition and that definition must be coupled with a #StopGoLine line in the sand giving drivers a specific decision point relevant to the time on the yellow and the safe braking distance of the heaviest vehicle rated to be on the road.


    Wyoming: Vehicular traffic facing a steady circular yellow or yellow arrow signal is thereby warned that the related green movement is being terminated or that a red indication will be exhibited immediately thereafter.

    Wisconsin: When shown with or following the green, traffic facing a yellow signal shall stop before entering the intersection unless so close to it that a stop may not be made in safety.

    Who is given authority to decide that a stop may not be made in safety? The driver is authorized to make this decision.

    If I decide that an 18 wheeler needs more distance to stop and I decide that I don’t want to be caught dead in it if he needs it then I decide to clear that space to protect myself. It is not necessary for me to take my eyes off the road at that moment to check my rear view mirror because I decide it’s not safe to do so.

    Can you see the ambiguity? Does every driver deserve to be presumed innocent? Does reasonable doubt apply to your innocence as well as to mine?

    I say: Let’s stop guessing and lets give drivers precise decision points to make safer decisions.

    Does anyone agree?

  • Hi Matt, Suppose for argument sake that you agreed with our #StopGoLine strategy.

    What would happen to the reaction time if we posted signs indicating “this is your decision point for the yellow light”.

    Providing we have a recognizable sign which has the same visibility requirements as the traffic light (in terms of distance) then drivers will be prepared to react far in advance of reaching that point.

    Wouldn’t reaction time drop to practically zero?

    If more drivers react to stop many yards in advance of the stop bar, then what does that do to rear end collisions?

    If all drivers are educated to proceed safely through the intersection if the light is still green when they reach that point, then what does that do to rear end collisions?

    If your trying to make a left hand turn, wouldn’t you wait for the brake zone to be clear before you initiated the turn? What would that do to Tee collision statistics?

    Can you find a reason why discussion of progressing toward a #StopGoLine shouldn’t be on the table?

  • While it’s true that high congestion and driver education are the only challenges to the #StopGoLine concept we also have to ask ourselves: Would John Kennedy have been justified to scrap the space program just because of the dangers of getting involved?

    Don’t we have a duty to civil rights (giving people a fair method to obey before they can be prosecuted) and to driver safety (Over 9k people die at intersections and over 750k are injured annually)?

    Sure the idea has issues but is that reason to give up?

  • http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/nchrp/nchrp_rpt_731.pdf

    Wisconsin* When shown with or following the green, traffic facing a yellow signal shall stop before entering the intersection unless so close to it that a stop may not be made in safety.

    Notice: unless so close to it that a stop may not be made in safety.

    Any good defense attorney will use the ambiguity of this language to protect you against a red light camera ticket.

    Does this law really say stop on yellow?
    Or is that all you want to read?
    Or did law makers make it so ambiguous that the only thing they succeeded in creating is greater conflict on the highways?

    Can we agree that it’s possible this law itself might be responsible for some collisions in that state?

    The worst possible scenario is for someone to slam on the brakes in front of an 18 wheeler with the attitude “I’m in the right. Let him hit me, I need the money”.

    Two wrongs don’t make a right (they make two wrongs).

  • Miles Bader

    Stop?? You expect drivers to stop?!?

    Next you’ll be asking them pay attention while driving!

    Why do you hate America??

  • Miles Bader

    Better yet would be “Why we’re freaking out that our irresponsible driving habits may be exposed”…

  • Miles Bader

    (1) Wear hob-nailed boots. Crampons might also be good.

    (2) Just walk over the car

  • farazs

    News flash: you put yourself at risk from other drivers every time to step out of your house. Yes, people following closely puts you in danger – but that danger is not only at intersections. Someone might cut you off, a car ahead might have a mechanical failure, there might be a collision ahead which brings traffic to a sudden halt. Your *only* defence against the idiot sucking your exhaust pipe is to slow down pre-emptively and leave more room in front so that you can make a smooth stop.

    This StopGoLine concept is sheer nonsense. How does it tackle the fact that a some one is moving slower than the limit because they are heavily loaded? What if the visibility is low due to fog or rain? What if the roads are slick due to snow or oil? What about bicycles and trucks? How may lines due you plan to have – one for each situation? What about everyone who speeds up to cross the StopGoLine before the light turns, because they believe it gives them magical screw-the-law powers?

  • farazs

    Lane markers are not mere ‘aids to navigation’. They are defined for and employed in framing laws, just like a crosswalk or a stop-line. Many more drivers would make safer choices if they learnt how to drive safely, or at least had to suffer the consequences of their refusal to do so. The truth is that most people don’t care, until its their loved one in the ER/morgue.

    You are the one taking a dismissive attitude – to any form of traffic light enforcement, to the responsibility of drivers to act in a safe manner. You talk like more drivers would obey the law if they could! But your strategy reveals that your real motive is for drivers to be able to get away with as much as possible without getting caught.

    A StopGoLine only shifts the emphasis of the unsafe behaviour – you will still have people speeding to cross it, blowing through and then claiming that they had reached it. But now you wouldn’t have any cameras to prove otherwise, because your crusade would have already got rid of them. Moreover, consider 2 cars crossing a StopGoLine in close succession. The car ahead sees that the intersection is blocked on the other side and decides to stop. The one behind promptly rear-ends, because you have shifted the onus from the car behind(maintaining safe distance) to the car in front (do NOT stop after the StopGoLine no matter what). The problem with being too specific is that it will reveal the flaws in your solution.

  • I’m sorry, I have no idea what you’re lecturing me about. Honestly. I have nothing against safety, it is in fact, my biggest priority. If “stop-go lines” solved the safety issues at intersections, I’d suggest the obviously be implemented. However, I don’t know that they do, and I don’t think you do either. I’m for evidence based safety policy. Other countries including the one I live in, have vastly better safety records, and they don’t require “stop-go lines” to achieve this. So I’m not convinced that it is useful or necessary.

    I also don’t believe most drivers who run red lights are doing so accidentally by misjudgement. Stop bars might allow us to more judiciously decide whether someone ran a light or not, but I don’t think it will stop it from happening. People are impatient, they don’t want to wait at a red light.

    The other issue is they probably become less and less useful the lower the speed through the intersection. And since lowering speed is something that’s well proven to improve safety….that would be preferred.

  • Alicia

    We are sticking to the subject. You’re the one trying to hijack the discussion from a real way to improve safety to a gimmick.

  • Thank you for having the patience to continue.

    RE: I’m for evidence based safety policy.

    I say: That’s why I am suggesting all money from RLC’s be used solely for studying objective solutions like #StopGoLine. (So we can go out and get the evidence to prove our position).

    RE: I also don’t believe most drive rs who run red lights are doing so accidentally by misjudgement. Stop bars might allow us to more judiciously decide whether someone ran a light or not, but I don’t think it will stop it from happening. People are impatient, they don’t want to wait at a red light.

    AAA’s latest report says:
    ““(94.0%) consider it unacceptable for a driver to drive through a light that had already turned red when they could have stopped safely (72.7% completely unacceptable)”

    I say: these statistics argue in favor of the huge number of drivers who would favor a more objective method if was available.

    Let’s agree that we are all for evidence based safety policy and demand the money from RLC’s would sponsor a study to see how many drivers would prefer a #StopGoLine method.

  • I don’t think I disagree with any point here. Certainly we should fund studies to investigate different solutions to improving traffic safety. Although, before doing that, we should start using the known good solutions, VisionZero certainly has plenty of best practices which we don’t follow when rebuilding roads today.

    On the issue of where to get the money however, I’d argue against having enforcement dollars go through city coffers, I realize it’s entirely unrelated, but given the occurrences of abuse, in certain well known jurisdictions, I think there should be a federal law requiring all enforcement dollars to first pay for enforcement costs, then go into a victims fund to help support the victims of traffic violence.

    Ticket revenue should skip city coffers, the risk of abuse I think is simply too great.


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