Seeing Red: Why L.A. Needs to Keep its Traffic Light Cameras

Thus far I’ve tried to avoid weighing in on the issue of red light cameras (RLCs) in an effort to keep my comments section free of any more angry posts than I normally get, and my email free of complaints from friends and relatives (you know who you are) who’ve been caught in the past. However, my hand has been forced by the Los Angeles City Council’s decision to consider a measure to eliminate our RLC program.

RLCs are not particularly popular. In fact, I have found that many people vehemently hate them. To give an example, the Chicago Tribune conducted a poll in 2009 showing that 53 percent of voters supported the cameras, while 41 percent opposed them. These percentages basically flipped when voters were asked if they wanted RLCs in their own neighborhood. This is a bit reminiscent of Monty Python’s proposal to “tax foreigners living abroad.”

Do we need RLCs? First off, yes, there is a problem. Intersections are dangerous places. The Federal Highway Administration has estimated that red-light running caused 676 deaths and 113,000 injuries in 2009 alone. Even more troubling, nearly two-thirds of the fatalities were innocent drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.

Moreover, there is an enforcement issue. Catching a driver who runs a red light often means the cop must himself run the red to chase the law-breaker from behind, with considerable danger to both cop and motorists on the cross street.

Next question: do RLCs work? The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety has estimated that RLCs in the 14 largest cities saved 159 lives between 2004 and 2008. In a recent study comparing cities that added RLCs between 1996 and 2004 with those that did not, the Institute found the RLC cities had crash rates that were 35 percent lower in the mid-2000s than in the early 90s. Cities that did not install RLCs also saw a drop, but of only 14 percent.

Not only are lives saved at RLC intersections, but there may be a “spillover” effect where drivers are more cautious at other intersections as well. The bottom line is that the Institute calculates that if all 99 cities with populations over 200,000 had installed RLCs, between 2004 and 2008 a total of 815 deaths could have been avoided.

Granted, you might consider the Insurance Institute (which is, as the name suggests, financed by the insurance industry) a biased organization. I’m not sure if being biased against traffic deaths is all that bad, but I agree they have an axe to grind and independent confirmation of their numbers is in order.

A meta-review by A. Aeron-Thomas and S. Hess looked at the results of 10 studies. They found that total injury crashes fell by a significant amount in intersections that installed RLCs (estimates ranged from 13 to 29 percent). The reduction in total crashes was smaller for reasons I’m about to discuss, but it ranged from 7 to 26 percent. They concluded that RLCs reduce total casualties, though the reductions in total collisions are more modest.

Another study, this one from the Federal Highway Association, also found overall safety benefits. It concluded that right-angle crashes drop by about 25 percent when RLCs are installed. However, echoing a complaint frequently made by RLC detractors, it did find that rear-end collisions increased as drivers were more likely to slam on their brakes at the sight of a red light and get hit by the following car. Thus rear-end collisions tend to rise by about 15 percent.

However, right-angle crashes are far more dangerous and damaging than rear-enders, which explains why the study found that, on average, each RLC generated a net savings in crash costs of about $39,000 per year.

What are the arguments against RLCs? Two are based on the revenues. When RLCs generate large amounts of cash, opponents claim they are an invidious scheme to soak taxpayers under the false pretense of improving safety. (For example, in a Chicago Tribune poll only 32 percent thought that the cameras were for safety, while 61 percent thought they were there to raise revenue.) It seems to me that raising revenue this way is superior to taxing those who have broken no law, but still this bothers opponents.

On the other hand, when citations drop because people are driving more safely through those intersections, motorists complain that the cameras are money losers that waste taxpayer dollars and should be scrapped.

These arguments are difficult for me to refute, because I’m not sure what to argue against: are RLCs bad because they raise revenue, or because they don’t raise revenue? I would maintain that we should hope RLCs lose money, because that shows they are doing their job.

Some feel that banning outright the running of reds is acceptable, but that it’s unfair to ticket drivers who roll through a right turn on red. However, rolling through a right on red can be dangerous, since the tendency is to fixate on the traffic flow to the left, ignoring the chance that a pedestrian might venture out into the cross walk on the right. Pedestrians get killed this way.

Another argument I’ve heard is that RLCs are unfairly “trapping” motorists. Really? It’s not like FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks are offering drivers suitcases full of cash to go through intersections. Nobody but themselves is causing drivers to break laws, and these are laws they have agreed to obey as a condition of getting behind the wheel.

This raises what I ultimately think is the strongest argument in favor of RLCs. This is not that RLCs are effective in preventing accidents, but that running a red light is a crime.

If indeed RLCs are associated with rear-end collisions, the ultimate problem is that red lights force people to stop, not that the RLC enforces that rule. The ultimate fix would be to change the law and make red lights a friendly suggestion as opposed to a requirement.

If anti-RLC folks will not take this obviously outlandish position, they are forced to argue that we should have a law but should not enforce it. In fact, many that I have spoken to do attempt to defend this position, by arguing that somehow the camera is a sinister invasion of privacy that would make John Locke and James Madison roll over in their graves. According to this argument, it is thus worth tolerating rampant lawbreaking.

However, the camera only surveils you if you break the law in a public place. Moreover, it records nothing of your behavior except that you were in the intersection. Its judgments are made with robotic precision, and it treats all motorists with impartiality.

Policemen on the street, on the other hand, are vastly more invasive and potentially unjust because they are surveiling you when you are not breaking the law, have the ability to bust you on more severe charges emanating from a traffic stop (e.g. if you have drugs in the car), have fallible judgment about whether you were in the intersection, and have the ability to enforce the law selectively (e.g. racial profiling). If privacy is your concern it would actually be far better to have RLCs, but ban police from the streets. If you concede that it is kosher to have policemen on patrol I see little basis for arguing against RLCs, which are actually considerably more benign.

A major problem for RLCs is common to many public policies: those who are punished know who they are, but the beneficiaries do not. Also, it is hard to point to the benefits of something not happening. People who get tickets from RLCs are often bitter, and can turn into vocal enemies of the program. However, there are hundreds of people walking around today whose lives were saved by an RLC but will never know that they cheated death thanks to a camera. Consider that you might be one of them. Or if you really do hate RLCs, I’d suggest you fight back and teach those money-grubbing bureaucrats a lesson… by stopping at each and every red light.

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  1. Jen says:

    No arguments here. My city doesn’t have them yet, but the number of people running red lights (saw one just yesterday who was actually giggling and gesturing out the window as he sped through a very red light) surely would warrant it.

    They can be moved, right? I’d say that once revenues — and thus red-light running — at an intersection were down by a certain percentage it might be time to move the cameras. Think of it, there’d even be a jobs component then, for the RLC switching crew.

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    • ThatMattGuy says:

      You live in Louisville, too? I’ve seen people turn left at a red light here without even slowing down multiple times in the 2 years I’ve lived here. True, it was late at night, but last time I checked, starlight doesn’t make people (and cars) invincible.

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  2. Brian says:

    The year after 3 red light cameras were installed in a Portland, Ore suburb, city officials complained because of loss of revenue due to the cameras. Evidentially they worked and people stopped running red lights at these intersections and the city had a hard time paying for their operation…

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    • Derek says:

      WOW! That says to me that safety took a backseat to increased revenue (in this instance). As much as I would hate getting ticketed for, what I hope in most cases is, a timing error. I can’t say that I have much of an arguement against the use of RLC’s… other than, city officials falsely claiming that they’re concerned about peoples safety. Even if it is a revenue issue though, who better to tax then those putting peoples safety at stake.

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  3. Dave Loete says:

    I am not opposed to the RLC’s, but do not like the fact that often the yellow lights durations are shortened, making it more likely that a motorist will run the red light.

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    • Mike B says:

      I think the main problem is that only a minority of people intend or even want to run a red light. Because yellow light times are widely inconsistent, especially when posted speed limits can vary so widely from actual traffic speeds, people end up accidentally misjudging the time and/or distance to the stop. They don’t WANT to run the light, it just happens and 99.99% of the time this causes no harm because they miss the light by just a fraction of a second. What RLC’s do is basically convert the yellow light into the new red. Now when the light goes yellow people have to slam on their brakes due to the uncertainty of accidentally clipping the real red. This not only causes read-end accidents, but also causes wear on the brakes, tyres and kills fuel efficiency.

      The real risk of accidents come from people who run the light well after it changes to red. Therefore they should be set to engage a second or two after the light changes instead of immediately when it changes. As currently designed RLC’s primarily catch people who are not being unsafe, but who have made a harmless miscalculation.

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  4. Arlen says:

    Part of the reason traffic violations are so expensive is because folks are so rarely caught. If everyone was caught speeding every time they did it $100 fines would be outrageously high compared to the actual risk of harm speeding creates. As a biker and pedestrian, I really appreciate RLCs, they do seem to make the streets safer, especially for people not encased in steel. That said, I think reducing the fines for a run red light would be perfectly fine. The important part is that illegal and dangerous behavior is being curtailed (and documented), not that some particular amount of cash is extracted from the perpetrators.

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    • Andrew says:

      I think this is a very good idea.

      Add points to their license (potentially resulting in higher insurance rates, license suspension for repeat offenders), but don’t levy a fine on them. This completely removes the argument that the cameras are there for the money, since the city/township/etc. does not receive any. Generally, you have to accumulate a handful of points (in Ohio, at least) before your insurance raises (I have 4 points, my insurance has not gone up since I got them, and it takes 12 for a suspension). Adding the points to the license still enforces that RLR is against the law and that the ultimate goal is safety for other road users.

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      • Mack says:

        The problem here is that the city doesn’t (generally) own or operate these. They’re installed on spec by private companies who share the revenue with the city. If a given camera doesn’t produce enough revenue, it will be removed.

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      • Tank says:

        It will be removed and placed somewhere else. Once installed, the cost of operation is minimal. There’s no way there are cameras out there losing money.

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      • dan says:

        You can’t add points from a camera as there is no way to know who was inside the car. Thus, it’s an administrative violation (like a parking ticket) against the car and mailed to the registered owner rather than a moving violation which is against the license of the person who is in the car (the police stop you and record your license info).

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      • Graeme says:

        Here in the U.K. you can have points added to your licence if you run a red light. (I know this as I currently have 3 points on mine for doing just that).

        After the camera snaps you, the registered keeper receives a letter in the post (within 14 days) stating that if you were the driver then you’ll get the points, but if you weren’t then you are legally bound to inform the authorities of who was. If you don’t then you get into further legal trouble. This is not only for RLC’s either, this also works for speed cameras and other offences.

        Oh and you also get a fine (£60).

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    • Enter your name... says:

      It wouldn’t work. It would work as in the day-care center experiment: people would may run a red light here and there if they think they can pay for the fines. They are high for a reason, which is to scare them off from breaking the rules.

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  5. Mariana says:

    The one question I have is whether red light cameras punish for making a left turn on a yellow turning red. Living in West L.A. means that if you don’t make that left turn on that late yellow, you may sit at that intersection indefinitely. People are always running the yellow coming from the other direction, so you have to wait in the middle of the intersection, turning left at the last possible second so you don’t get bashed by the oncoming car also trying to make the yellow. I doesn’t seem fair to punish left-turners for doing what is essentially necessary to make driving in L.A. somewhat tolerable. I’m not actually sure if they are punished for this, but it would be good to know.

    Other than that concern, I think RLCs definitely can save lives/prevent property damage. My mom was in two accidents last year due to a driver running a red light (in TX, not CA).

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    • Joshua Northey says:

      I was ticketed for this by an officer. Was not happy. I asked him if I was supposed to wait there for an hour until rush hour was over and he said “yes”. This was in Saint Paul. Of course 2 years later they did install a turn arrow.

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    • Snidely says:

      Almost none of the RLCs will ticket you for doing this. The sensors to activate the camera are almost always just beyond the stop line. So, if you’re in the intersection when the light turns red, the camera will not go off.

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  6. bob says:

    People hate RLCs because it adds mental delay at intersections. Before the RLC, they could look for police and squeeze through the last bit of yellow first bit of red. This was technically illegal, but seemingly victimless.

    RLCs eliminate that. These same aggressive drivers now have to stop or they will be caught every time. This is particularly bothersome at poorly timed lights during off-peak hours.

    The frustrated drivers enjoy the road less. In other words, the drivers are more aware of the intersection, but it’s because they feel nagged. Like a husband who finally takes out the garbage, they stop and resent having to do it.

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    • Fiona says:

      “The frustrated drivers enjoy the road less. In other words, the drivers are more aware of the intersection, but it’s because they feel nagged. Like a husband who finally takes out the garbage, they stop and resent having to do it.”

      Its a law…who cares if they “resent” having to stop at a red light ?? Stopping is not an optional action to be done whenever we feel like it, its an obligation so that we don’t kill other road-users

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  7. aubrey says:

    As long as I can face my accuser in a court of law afterwards its fine

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  8. Scott says:

    What about the studies that point out increasing the length of yellow lights and adding a delay between one direction turning red and the other direction turning green provides similar benefits to RLC? That’s a heck of a lot cheaper than RLC and requires nothing but a little programming time at each intersection. RLC are the wrong solution to the problem.

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    • Bryan Larsen says:

      In my anecdotal experience, this makes the problem worse, not better.

      Certainly, it would provide a temporary benefit, but does how long term does your study go? If it’s not more than 10 years, your study is worthless. As drivers get used to the long yellows and that bit of “all-red” time, they run the yellow much more. Compare Ottawa, Ontario (long yellow, 2 seconds of “all-red”) with Quebec City (short yellows, no “all-red” times). Everybody runs yellows in Ottawa, it’s very rare in Quebec City, even though in other aspects Quebec drivers are much more aggressive. Put an Ottawa trained driver in Quebec City and you’re really asking for trouble. And you also notice how much more efficiently the traffic lights move in Quebec City.

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    • Michael Cassidy says:

      I dont see why your argument if true needs to replace RLCS. If you could get such a benefit so cheaply why not have both.

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