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Red light, speed cameras: Friend or foe?

By Autumn Cafiero Giusti

red light traffic cameraNearly half of the states in the U.S. currently operate red light cameras, and speed cameras are active in a dozen states. Yet there’s a wide divide when it comes to opinions on whether automated enforcement cameras should be in use at all, with 13 states going so far as to outlaw speed cameras and 10 states prohibiting speed cameras.

Critics say the cameras are an invasion of privacy and primarily serve as a revenue generator for local governments. But proponents of this type of enforcement insist that cameras do work, and that there’s an ethical way to operate them.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is one of the leading organizations to come out in support of automated enforcement. “Red light cameras and speed cameras are proven tools in changing driver behavior and reducing crashes. Study after study shows they’re effective,” says IIHS spokesman Russ Rader.

In a study comparing large cities with red light cameras to those without, an IIHS study found that the devices reduced the fatal red-light running crash rate by 24 percent and all types of fatal crashes at signalized intersections by 17 percent.

The IIHS made similar findings in studies of speed cameras. The institute in 2015 found that about seven an a half years after Montgomery County, Md., began its speed camera program, cameras there were associated with a 10 percent reduction in mean speeds and 59 percent reduction in the likelihood that a vehicle was traveling more than 10 mph above the speed limit at camera sites. The study also found that speed camera enforcement was associated with a 12 percent reduction in the likelihood that a crash on a camera-eligible road was speeding-related, and a 19 percent reduction in the likelihood that a crash involved an incapacitating or fatal injury.

“It makes sense because you have a system in place that guarantees that when people break the law, they’ll be ticketed,” Rader says. “That is how you change driver behavior.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 400 U.S. communities use red-light cameras, and more than 40 communities in the U.S. use cameras to enforce speed laws. Red-light running crashes are responsible for approximately 260,000 injuries and 750 fatalities each year, and speed is a factor in thousands of crashes, according to NCSL.

While some opponents say that the cameras violate drivers’ privacy, Rader contends that this type of monitoring is not unprecedented or unusual.

“No court has ever held that there is an expectation of privacy when you’re operating a vehicle on public roads,” Rader says, adding that cameras are considered more acceptable in other situations, such as at the ATM or for mall surveillance. “Cameras there are intended to keep us safe. Why would we not accept cameras that are intended to reduce crashes on the road?”

Proponents urge responsible ticketing

Many of the groups and researchers that support automated enforcement cameras say that the cameras can be effective – just as long as they are used responsibly.

“We know from research that automated enforcement can be a really critical tool for law enforcement and should be utilized. But there are certain caveats for usage of it,” says Kara Macek, spokeswoman for the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Among that research is a 2014 study that Texas A&M University civil engineering professor Dr. Dominique Lord helped prepare a report for the Chicago Tribune on the safety of red-light cameras. The study analyzed data from 90 four-way, signalized intersections for three years before and after red-light cameras were installed, as well as at 59 sites where there were no cameras.

The study found that the cameras reduced T-bone crashes involving injury, but actually increased rear-end injury collisions. Among the findings were a non-significant increase of 5% in the total number of injury crashes – a figure that researchers consider statistically insignificant – but a 15% reduction in angle and turning injury crashes. The study also found 22% increase in rear-end injury collisions.

“What we found is pretty much consistent with most of the studies that have examined this issue,” says Lord, who is division head of transportation and materials for Texas A&M’s Zachry Department of Civil Engineering.

Lord says cameras can reduce crashes, but only with the proper use.

“Red light cameras are only one tool among different countermeasures that can be used to improve safety at signalized intersections,” he says. “They should not be put up blindly without doing a thorough engineering analysis.”

Macek says cameras need to be put in the right places, such as high-risk sites, school zones and locations where law enforcement personnel otherwise can’t be deployed safely. “With everything in highway safety, data drives decisions,” Macek says. “So you need to do a good, thorough study to see where these enforcement cameras make the most impact.”

A public information campaign also should precede the installation of enforcement cameras, Macek says, so that the public will be more receptive to them.

“They can really change behavior,” she says of the cameras. “When people think they’re going to get caught, they’ll slow down.

Some communities are reputed to be a little more trigger-happy with ticket issuance than others and have been known to give camera tickets to drivers who are going less than 10 miles over the speed limit. Experts recommend that communities calibrate their speed cameras to reflect whatever speed buffer zone a traditional law enforcement officer would use.

“These can’t be gotcha programs,” Rader says. “It’s important with speed cameras in particular that they operate in a way that’s similar to what the public’s expectation would be for a police officer. And people generally know that a police officer is not going to ticket someone for going one or two or three or four mph over the speed limit.”

Rader says that communities need to follow best practices when setting up camera programs so that they can maintain the public’s support. That includes transparency and communication with the public about why the camera programs are needed.

“They don’t have to reinvent the wheel when they start a camera program,” he says. “There are guidelines provided by the federal government and other agencies for helping communities to do this.”

Cameras draw opposition, controversy

Automated enforcement cameras have their share of detractors, with some critics questioning the safety motives of the cameras.

“The bottom line is cameras of any type really have nothing to do with improving public safety and everything to do with generating revenues on the backs of motorists,” says John Bowman, communications director for the National Motorists Association.

Bowman points out that in the city of Chicago, a single red-light camera can generate millions of dollars in revenues. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the city’s top moneymaking cameras generate anywhere from $3.5 million to $8.1 million. “The numbers are huge,” Bowman says.

There’s also been concern about controversies involving enforcement camera programs, which have been at the center of a few public corruption cases.

The city of Chicago made headlines in recent years after the Chicago Tribune began investigating whether the city’s red-light cameras were being installed for safety or revenue purposes. Following the Tribune analysis, the company that installed and operated the cameras was fired after admitting to “likely” paying $2 million in bribes to a city official, and the company’s CEO pleaded guilty to federal charges alleging that she helped orchestrate the bribery scheme.

The same red-light camera company came under fire in Jefferson Parish, La., where it operated cameras for several years. In November, a judge signed off on a class-action suit that would return $7.1 million to 147,000 drivers who received tickets during that time.

“Where we’re at currently is that there are a few bad apples spoiling the bunch,” Macek says. “There have been some high-profile communities with less-than-ideal underlying motives.”

Experts on automated enforcement cameras say that communities need to take ethics into account when setting up camera programs. They caution against using automated cameras as a revenue generator.

The GHSA recommends that revenues derived from auto enforcement go back into highway safety functions. “Jurisdictions should be careful about relying on that sort of money,” Macek says.

Lord says communities should explore other options – such as increasing the amount of time a light is yellow – before installing a camera at an intersection. Otherwise, communities actually run the risk of increasing accidents, rather than decreasing them.

“Even if there’s a safety problem at an intersection, it doesn’t mean that the red light camera is the solution,” he says. “There may be other types of countermeasures that can be used to reduce the number of crashes as well.”

Bowman contends that red light and speed cameras tend to be pop up on areas with deficient traffic engineering.

“Simply put, there is no need for red light cameras or speed cameras if the roads and intersections have been engineered properly,” Bowman says. “At intersections where they claim there have been a lot of accidents, instead of putting up a red light camera, why not tackle the engineering defects? And then the need for cameras goes away.”

Primarily, Bowman says that some intersections don’t allow the light to remain yellow long enough.
“When you shortchange those times, you put people in what’s known as the dilemma zone: When those times are too short, people panic and slam on the brakes, risking an accident. Or they speed up and risk getting a ticket,” he says.

Some states stay neutral

With several states passing laws that are clearly for or against red light and speeding cameras, some states remain on the fence as to whether to support or oppose camera programs.

Michigan is one of the states without any sort of red light or speed camera program, and the state hasn’t taken a legislative stance for or against the cameras. It’s one of 19 states that don’t have any sort of red light camera law and one of 28 states without a speed camera law, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Some state lawmakers made a push for the cameras in recent years, introducing bills that would legalize both types of cameras. But none of those bills gained passage. In November, another state lawmaker introduced a bill to ban both camera types, although legislators have yet to take any action on the bill.

A 2007 opinion from Michigan’s attorney general suggests that both forms of automated enforcement are “invalid,” according to his interpretation of the Motor Vehicle Code.

Todd Berg, an attorney with Michigan Auto Law, says there are good arguments in favor of red-light and speed cameras, and that their presence – assuming they’re in a well-known, well-publicized presence – can provide as an effective deterrent to drivers who might otherwise endanger other drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists. “By being present, the cameras can detect and identify speeders and red-light runners and, thus, ensure they are ticketed accordingly for breaking the law,” Berg says.

Although corruption can be a concern when introducing enforcement cameras, the central issue should always be whether camera systems accomplish the goals they set out to do, Berg says. “Corruption in the operation of traffic camera systems is unacceptable and should be punished as the crime that it is,” he says. “But the threat of corruption shouldn’t necessarily preclude the use of traffic camera systems.”

Camera use ebbs, flows

The use of automated enforcement cameras has risen in some places while declining in others. Jeff Cohn founded the website 14 years ago in response to the growing number of cameras in Southern California, where the site is based. Today, the site gets about 4,000 to 5,000 visitors daily, and it tracks the locations of red light and speed cameras in every city, as well as state-by-state fines and penalties. The site also keeps track of when cameras are added and removed. “It’s a very interesting industry that has grown and somewhat diminished in some cities,” Cohn says.

Cohn says the use of red light cameras appears to be on the decline, but there has been an increase in the number of speed cameras in school zones and near parks, particularly in Washington, D.C. and New York.

“That seems to have a little more PR value,” Cohn says of the latter. “The community doesn’t fight it as much.”

Cohn says communities are definitely adding cameras, but it’s still hard to tell whether they are adding cameras at a faster rate than they’re removing them.

Regarding states that have outlawed cameras altogether, Rader says there’s no research justification for states to ban them.

“A ban on cameras – meaning that police agencies can’t use them – means that communities in those states will be less safe as a result.”
Some communities have ended the camera programs because revenue no longer supports the programs. In some cases, this indicates that the program worked the way it should have, Rader says.

“Some people have found that violations dropped so sharply that the revenue declines. People aren’t speeding as much,” he says.

Cohn says he would like to see more communities make the camera videos available to the public, so that if someone got into an accident at a particular intersection, they could access the video and use it as evidence. But for now, there is too much red tape involved with releasing footage.

“If you’re going to put up a camera and record video, it should be public data. To me, that’s the biggest conundrum right now – that cities are not allowing access to that data,” he says.

Fines and penalties

Red light and traffic camera tickets might not necessarily carry the same weight as a traditional ticket issued by a police officer. But the penalties can still sting.

According to, fines for speeding can range from as little as $40 (in Maryland) to as high as $2,000 (in Oregon). Red-light camera fines typically average about $100 to $200, but they can go up to nearly $500 in places like California and Illinois, and $1,000 in Oregon.

Red light and speed camera tickets will not go on your driving record in most places, although in nine states, you can rack up a few DMV violation points.

In most states, the tickets won’t affect insurance rates. But that’s not the case everywhere.

In Louisiana, the state’s deputy insurance commissioner Ed O’Brien wrote that although most insurance companies will not adjust rates based on whether there was a red-light camera ticket violation, it is at the discretion of each insurance company as to whether it wants to do this. Bowman explains that this means there’s nothing preventing insurance companies from retrieving the information from a third-party reporting company, such as legal research provider LexisNexis, which makes the information available through court records. “They’ll base their underwriting decisions on your red light ticket and use that to increase your rates,” Bowman says. “So even if it doesn’t show up on your driving record, it can affect your rates.”

Even though hundreds of communities have come to rely on cameras to issue tickets, there’s yet another hiccup: Not everyone is paying them.

Cohn says that he hears from the camera companies that as many as half of tickets go unpaid because it’s hard to determine whether the owner of the car was the same person driving the ticketed vehicle.

“It’s difficult for these cities to collect on tickets,” he says.