As Cities Turn Off Red Light Cameras, Red Light Runners Claim More Lives

This lab crash simulates a 2012 red-light-running crash in Yuma, Arizona. The driver was severely injured. Photo: IIHS
This lab crash simulates a 2012 red-light-running crash in Yuma, Arizona. The driver was severely injured. Photo: IIHS

Red light runners are killing more Americans as many cities wind down red light camera enforcement, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The IIHS reports that 811 people were killed in crashes caused by red light runners nationwide in 2016, an increase of 17 percent compared to the previous four-year average. The rise in red light-running fatalities coincides with a decline in the number of cities using camera enforcement to deter red-light running. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of red light cameras in operation fell 21 percent, according to IIHS.

While IIHS doesn’t attribute all of the additional loss of life to the reduction in cameras, their research shows it is a factor. A 2016 IIHS study found that the fatal red-light running crash rate in cities that shut off their cameras increased 30 percent relative to similar cities that had not. In cities that had eliminated camera enforcement, the overall fatal crash rate at signalized intersections was 16 percent higher than in cities where the programs were maintained.

Cities are more vulnerable to political backlash against camera enforcement when the programs are poorly managed, which lends credence to accusations that the programs are about revenue, not safety. To be effective and politically sustainable, the programs have to be structured to maximize public safety and eliminate incentives for contractors to game the system.

Here’s how the IIHS recommends setting up a red light camera program (with some additional suggestions from us):

1. Put the cameras at the most dangerous intersections

The first step is to assess where cameras are needed the most. Place the cameras where severe red light running crashes are most prevalent.

The camera locations should not be concentrated in communities of color. In Cleveland, research showed black residents received a disproportionate share of the city’s camera fines, but in 2013 the city still proposed placing most of a batch of enforcement cameras on the predominantly black East Side. The next year residents voted to ban the cameras citywide.

2. Target the most dangerous violations 

Red light running is dangerous because it causes T-bone crashes and collisions with pedestrians and cyclists at speed — all of which are correlated with severe injuries and fatalities. These crashes are the result of motorists blowing straight through a red, which should be the focus of red light camera enforcement. Citations for turning right-on-red make sense in crowded urban areas, but not in more sparsely populated places.

3. Use standard signal timing

If drivers think the yellow phase is short, the camera program will be tarred as unfair. To ensure the yellow phase is standard, IIHS recommends consulting guidelines from the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices or the Institute of Transportation Engineers.

4. Allocate revenue to safety programs

Once the costs of administering the program are covered, use the camera revenues to fund street safety programs.

5. Encourage public input

IIHS recommends cities establish an advisory stakeholder group, composed of law enforcement, residents, school officials, and victims’ advocates, to help design the program and oversee changes.

6. Be transparent

Collect and publish data about how the program is functioning. IIHS cautions, however, that before-and-after comparisons between intersections with cameras and those without may not capture the full effect of the cameras, since there are often “spillover effects” where enforcement at some intersections improves compliance in general.

7. Don’t create bad incentives for the vendor

Cities should pay the red light camera vendor based on the vendor’s costs to implement the system, not based on the number of tickets issued.

8. Don’t set up hair-trigger cameras

When the cameras are first installed, IIHS recommends a probationary period in which drivers are issued warnings instead of fines. IIHS also says cameras should not trigger a fine for drivers who disobey the red signal less than one-eighth to one-half of a second after the light changes.

9. Allow for due process

Put a system in place for people to contest violations and make it easily accessible to the public.

10. Sliding-scale fines and alternatives to payment for low-income drivers

A one-size-fits-all red light-running fine might not even register for a rich person, but for a poor person it can be a heavy burden exacerbating debt and poverty. In several northern European countries, fines are proportionate to income to create a fair incentive system. Sliding scale fines are rare in the U.S., but cities can also let low-income people forego fines and enroll in a safe driving class or other remedial program, like community service, instead.

  • 1980Gardener

    #11 Use cameras for speeding too.

  • chasidot

    You write “The camera locations should not be concentrated in communities of color.” But if that is where the most red-light-running deaths occur, and lives-of-color matter, why should we shift cameras to white neighborhoods to save just a few white lives when we could shift cameras to non-white neighborhoods where they could save more non-white lives?

  • Darren

    In theory any disproportionate placement in neighborhoods of color should be coincidental and based on a mix of collision data and community input (e.g., neighborhood groups requesting cameras).

  • Darren

    And carpool facility violations.

  • Roger R.

    “…says cameras should not trigger a fine for drivers who disobey the red signal less than one-eighth to one-half of a second after the light changes.”

    Remind me…what’s a yellow light mean again?

  • TakeFive

    Steady yellow lights signal that the light will turn red soon. So, you must either come to a safe stop before the crosswalk, or, if you can’t stop safely, proceed with caution through the intersection

  • Jeffrey Baker

    #12 automated drone strikes for repeat and flagrant offenses.

  • Michelle Pasternack

    You have got to be kidding. I see more cyclists running red lights than cars!

  • IIHS lies. IIHS is the fake news of engineering concerns. IIHS has a conflict of interest. IIHS is a consortium of auto-insurance companies who raise their premiums based red-light camera violations. “2016 IIHS report shows 30% increase in fatalities after cities turn off RLCs.” Have you read that report? It is the National Enquirer of science reports. The opposite of the scientific method. Its author, Wen Hu, doctors the data and invents absurd data relationships in order to arrive at a conclusion that favors the cameras, cameras from which IIHS profits. Why not quote the IIHS 2011 report which shows a 200% increase of fatalities due to the cameras? That is stat IIHS presents for Raleigh.

    IIHS recommends the federal guidelines or “ITE”. But the only federal standard that traffic engineers have to obey is MUTCD 4D.26(3)–to determine the yellow duration by engineering practices. Engineering practices, by State statutory definition, is the “application of science and math.” ITE’s contribution to the yellow is a false math equation which makes everyone run red lights. Using that equation is optional. The traffic engineer uses that equation at his own legal liability. And here in North Carolina, we have begun suing engineers for using that equation.

  • HumanRightsForAll

    How about putting up big clear signs . ” PHOTO ENFORCED “

  • 1976boy

    BS

  • MT

    Pretty convincing anecdata.

  • Ross

    How many fatalities have occurred as a result of cyclists running red lights? I’m guessing than answer is none – vs 811 by cars. It’s pretty clear where the enforcement priority needs to be.

  • Ross

    Agreed but I think there were some cases where municipalities were shortening the yellow light duration at intersections with cameras. Maybe this is best stated as some sort of relationship between the speed limit and the yellow light duration, rather than providing leeway after the light has changed.

  • Synchronize the lights. Drivers will stop making mad dashes for the next light when they realize a steady pace will work just fine.

  • Jsg78

    Agree, especially in Chicago he lights need to be synchronized. I have to gun it to have any chance at making two lights in a row. It usually works in the early morning when traffic is light (I can get up to 40-50 mph easily.

  • SDGreg

    “Use standard signal timing:
    If drivers think the yellow phase is short, the camera program will be tarred as unfair. To ensure the yellow phase is standard, IIHS recommends consulting guidelines from the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices or the Institute of Transportation Engineers.”

    This was the issue in San Diego. The city turned the cameras over to a private company and that company shortened the the yellow phase to increase ticket revenue. The rightful public outcry resulted in the cameras being removed. The city could have focused on safety, but greed and grift got in the way.

  • SDGreg

    San Diego was one of those cities. The company they hired to run the cameras shortened the yellow phase to increase ticket revenue and fatten their profits.

  • mckillio

    How about expecting people to not break the law because that’s their responsibility.

  • Roo_Beav

    Can you imagine what sort of damage the red car would have if instead of getting t-boned by a Ford F-150, it was t-boned by a Schwinn?

  • tomwest

    Little secret: if your drive the speed limit on a major road (in the busier direction), you’ll generally hit all green lights. (Because that’s what minimises delay, and hence that’s how the signal timings are designed)

  • tomwest

    Expect away. Shame it doesn’t happen.

  • Except you won’t. Especially not in a lot of downtowns. I am talking actual light timing synchronization, where a steady pace insures a green light.

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