CARS.COM — When it comes to societal debates on Big Brother versus the greater good, there are few devices as divisive as the red-light camera. Proponents argue they’re a valuable and effective deterrent to red-light runners, while critics contend they’re just a revenue generator for local governments. A new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety sheds some light on the empirical evidence behind the effectiveness of camera enforcement in curbing fatalities.
IIHS researchers said that red-light camera programs in 79 U.S. cities with populations of 200,000 or more saved nearly 1,300 lives between 1992 and 2014. Meanwhile, in more than a dozen cities that eliminated camera enforcement between 2010 and 2014, fatalities resulting from red-light running have spiked 30 percent. Moreover, researchers found that the rate of fatal crashes in those 14 cities overall — including all intersections, with or without camera enforcement — rose 16 percent after the red-light cameras were turned off.
In 2014, IIHS reported that there were more than 700 deaths and 126,000 injuries resulting specifically from red-light incidents — with the most of the casualties suffered by occupants of other vehicles, passengers in the offending car, pedestrians or bicyclists, as opposed to the offending driver. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, there were 2.3 million intersection-related crashes in 2008 resulting in nearly 8,000 deaths and three-quarters of a million injuries.
The latest study bolstered the conclusions of a 2011 study by IIHS that showed substantial reductions from 2004 to 2008 for per-capita fatality rates in both red-light-running incidents and fatal crashes of all types, at all signaled intersections, in large cities with automated enforcement. Camera programs, IIHS stated, fill in the gaps where human-based enforcement can’t always reach.
“While traditional police enforcement can help, there aren’t enough resources to station officers at every intersection,” IIHS stated. “Cameras increase the odds that violators will get caught, and well-publicized camera programs discourage would-be violators from taking those odds.”
Despite mounting evidence of automated enforcement’s effectiveness, opponents have characterized it as little more than a moneymaking scheme — and there have been high-profile cases to strengthen their position. In February, a judge in Chicago allowed a lawsuit to move forward challenging the legitimacy of the city’s automated enforcement program, which has generated more than $600 million in 13 years, saying it violates “fundamental principles of justice,” DNAinfo reported. A year earlier, the Chicago Sun-Times reported, Mayor Rahm Emanuel ordered the removal of 50 red-light cameras at 25 intersections under political pressure — diminishing the nation’s most expansive red-light camera program by 20 percent.
Other places have eliminated their automated enforcement programs altogether. According to IIHS, the total number of U.S. communities with red-light cameras fell to 467 in 2015 from a high of 533 three years earlier. That’s a 14 percent reduction researchers say is having deadly consequences.
On a statewide basis, according to information reported by the GHSA, 10 states now prohibit red-light cameras outright, while they’re permitted in nine others plus the District of Columbia and limited in a dozen more; 17 states have no state law or red-light programs. Generally, in states that have programs, fines and other penalties such as license points are mitigated for red-light camera violations versus traditional enforcement.
“Critics of … red-light cameras argue that they exist to make money for law enforcement agencies,” GHSA said in a statement. “However, the objective is to deter violators, not to catch them. Signs and publicity campaigns typically warn drivers that photo enforcement is in use. Revenue is generated from fines paid, but this is a fundamental component of all traffic enforcement programs.”
GHSA recommended the following guidelines for communities’ use of red-light cameras:
- Cameras should be used at high-crash intersections where traditional enforcement cannot be safely deployed, and only after a traffic-engineering analysis and implementation of a continual public information campaign.
- The devices should not replace traditional enforcement or be used to compensate for poor road design.
- Revenue should not be the objective and money collected from fines should be used only to fund highway safety functions.