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. Jason says:

    I absolutely agree.

    It seems to me that many people have simply become accustomed to breaking the law by running red lights (and speeding, etc.) and now feel entitled to do so. Then they get angry when the law is enforced, not because it is an unjust or unreasonable law or because the enforcement is unfair, but because they expected to be able to get away with it.

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    • Mike B says:

      If it wasn’t for the “Think of the Children” crowd these laws wouldn’t be on the books in the first place. Selective enforcement of laws, while sub-optimal, is still a critical part of our criminal justice system. The average American commits three felonies per day due to poorly written, vague or overly broad laws. Would you like all of these to start being strictly enforced?

      The whole point is that we don’t live in some dystopian society where the law is unrelentingly applied 100% of the time. Many laws exist only to be enforced under certain circumstances of extreme abuse or community outrage. Trying anything otherwise results in dysfunction such as if people actually drove the speed limit on urban highways massive traffic jams result. Today most traffic laws exist to assign blame post facto. If you run a red light and you hit someone there will be consequences. In fact that’s the way it should be. Running the red light isn’t the problem, hitting people is.

      Red lights and their associated laws are an imperfect solution to traffic control. As currently applied drivers often have to wait for long periods in front of empty intersections or are subject to delays due to disproportionate light timings. All this wasted time is a cost and probably runs on the order of millions of hours lost per year. If a lifetime’s worth of person hours are wasted at red lights is that not the same as a life wasted in an accident? To combat this waste we either need more flexible laws or flexible systems of enforcement or smarter traffic lights that eliminate the waste.

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      • Simon Farnsworth says:

        How about just cleaning up the legislation? I for one would love to see 100% enforcement of statute law; perhaps then legislators wouldn’t be so eager to create laws that don’t help, but do result in the average citizen committing an offence unwittingly.

        Bonus points if you start your 100% enforcement with legislators, then move onto their friends and families, then spread to cover the rest of us.

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  2. Tim Donaldson says:

    I don’t think the studies are robust enough or look at enough data to conclude that red light cams make us “safer”. If anything I find myself occasionally jamming on the brakes to avoid running a yellow out of fear of getting a $500 fine in the mail.

    How accurate are these cams? I received one that was clearly wrong, had to go to court and make my case to get it dismissed. That SUCKS. I was also tempted to simply pay it to avoid dealing with a court appearance. That also SUCKS.

    Is safety always the paramount motivation for installing cameras? Or is it revenue? I used to drive through West Hollywood and Beverly Hills on my way home to Venice each afternoon. Beverly Hills had installed red light cams in the toniest neighborhoods. Meanwhile, at the junction of Sunset and the 405, one greedy person could hold up dozens of drivers by getting stuck in the intersection. One traffic “cop” with a whistle could have saved thousands of man hours AND saved fuel use and emissions by directing traffic. Look, I just created a job!

    I think LA is a great case study for all traffic related problems, be they freeway or surface street issues. Automated cameras may or may not be a viable component to our traffic problems. I just question their efficacy and the motivation to install them. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that the companies that make the camera systems have a pretty slick sales force.

    Disclaimer – I have received 3 red light camera tickets in the last 10 years.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 12 Thumb down 13
    • Michael Cassidy says:

      It’s fair to say they are not fool proof an never make mistakes but the number of times this occurs compared to human law enforcement means it’s hardly and issue worth worrying about. Yeah going to court sucks, but so does so much stuff we get stuck with in life.

      Generally they are pretty active, otherwise you wouldnt see many lawyers paying fines.

      I don’t really think motivation is that big an issue. If it’s illegal then its illegal. If it is cost effective to enforce the law why not enforce it? If it cost more to enforce that it was worth their might be a greater argument against them because those resources may be better spent elsewhere.

      I can however understand peoples views on how they view many parking fines as deliberate schemes to raise revenue.

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  3. Ben Miller says:

    One objection to RLCs is that discretion is a crucial part of law enforcement, and computers equipped with cameras aren’t very good at exercising it. Making a right turn on an empty street late at night probably doesn’t deserve the same scrutiny as the same turn in a bustling intersection during rush hour. A cop understands the difference, but a camera doesn’t.

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    • Tony says:

      But – if the data discussed above really is true, and the cameras really do saved several people from dying, it would be hard to argue that it’s not worth putting up with the inconvenience of what you outlined.

      Also, I’ve had more than one ticket from the kinds of cops who don’t understand the difference – and at those times, I would have rather had it be a real robot, vs. a cop that acted like one.

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    • pawnman says:

      Again, this is making the argument “it’s OK to break the law if you don’t get caught”. You don’t think you’d be pulled over if a cop happened to see you run a red light late at night on a quiet street?

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      • Michael Cassidy says:

        To be fair, they may decide it is not worth the effort. It is often within their discretion to do so however it should not be taken as acceptance by the cop of the illegal action.

        How much discretion is needed on something like this? You went through the red light, what else is there to know? It was probably safe so we should give you less of a fine? or find out you live nearby and understand the area really well so you were the best person to judge if it was safe? How about the one time in 1000 that an accident happens this way?

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    • jes says:

      Ben, officer “discretion” is not infallible, just like driver “discretion. Running the right turn late at night still puts vulnerable road users (cyclists, pedestrians) at risk, even if the intersection isn’t bustling with other car activity like at rush hour. Drivers use their own “discretion” when evaluating the late night intersection and the busy rush hour one, and seem much more likely to run the red in the former situation. Drivers plowing through a crosswalk to make a rolling right turn on red put me in even more danger at 1am than at 5pm because they’re usually not bothering to look for pedestrians at 1am (whereas at rush hour it doesn’t matter because the queue at the light forces them to stop anyway). I’d argue that these drivers deserve just as much scrutiny, whether by camera or police.

      Given how LAPD use their “discretion” to police the pedestrian environment, cameras are definitely the best way to enforce the rules of the road and maintain safety for vulnerable road users:

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  4. Brian Moore says:

    I don’t really have a problem with RLC’s by themselves, but what many critics dislike is that apparently some cities have decided to illegally shorten yellow lights in order to boost RLC revenue, which indicates that the primary motivator for their use (in at least those cities that did it) is revenue, not safety — as shorter yellow lights are less safe.

    Radley Balko’s covered this, and some other features of RLC’s, here: (search results)

    His counterproposal to RLC’s is lengthening yellow lights — which he suggests is safer, but of course lacks the revenue aspect.

    He also points to a critic of the IIHS study that you link: (for what it’s worth)

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    • Joshua Northey says:

      Lengthening yellows/all reds also decreases traffic flow. You need to start calculating the costs of everyone slowing down.

      And yes a couple thousand people losing a couple minutes a day can easily add up to a fraction of a human life in value.

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    • Michael Cassidy says:

      Like someone above. There is no reason this needs to replace RLCs. You may not like the motivate but that doesn’t mean RLCs are inherently bad.

      Personally though I’m happy when criminals pay for their crimes not just in terms of punishment but the costs of finding them and prosecuting them. It sure as hell beats paying 1000s to catch a criminal and 10000s to lock them up every year.

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  5. Nosybear says:

    My son-in-law is a police officer in Houston, a city that recently eliminated its redlight cameras. He hated them, mostly due to the increase in danger having them in place created. See, people when faced with a $25 fine become more cautious, slamming on their brakes at the first hint of yellow. The guy behind does not with predictable results and my son-in-law is now responding to the accident, which in a city with horrible traffic is causing massive backups, losses in productivity, fuel wasted, etc. And most of the accidents at red lights would not be helped by a red-light camera, someone doesn’t notice the light, is trying to beat it, etc. And the fine is so small that some just ignore it, it being such an insignificant fraction of their income and making the meeting being more important to them. In short, they’re great revenue producers for cities but here in Colorado, if you get sent a redlight camera ticket you can tear it up: State law requires all summons to be delivered in person and the mail doesn’t count.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 15 Thumb down 14
    • Michael Cassidy says:

      Are tickets really summons? Regardless if that is the system that just means its stupid, not that its inherently wrong.

      I dunno i think most drivers are pretty aware that they should not rear end the car infront of them. It is a pretty standard assumption that the person who rear ended the other is at fault.

      Regardless if drivers are slamming on the breaks the second they see a light turn yellow, then they just need to be better informed that going through a yellow even if you don’t exit and intersection wont result in a fine, as the cameras (in my understanding of the ones used in my area) catch people who enter an intersection when the light is red, not ones who leave.

      You comment contradicts a bit as you suggest people tend to ignore the fines they are only 25$ (so an argument to raise them to like 100?) and they can just rip them up (apparently) and then you suggest that people are so eager not to get one they break at first sign of one.

      Traffic management is hard work in modern cities. Almost every major city even on an international scale has major problems with this

      The idea behind RLCS as far as I can tell, is to ensure safety at a particular intersection as people learn that intersection has one, and thus doing so will result in a fine. Secondly that people know that any given intersection may have one, so they will not run any reds for fear that a given intersection has one, and thus safety is increased across multiple intersections as less people run reds, and those that do are punished and thus hopefully less likely to do it again.

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  6. Peter says:

    I agree with your points. There is, however, one interesting distinction made that came up when the Minnesota Supreme Court struck down the legality of red light cameras, which is the presumption of innocence, rather than guilt. Essentially, by assuming that the owner of the car is also the driver.

    “The problem with the presumption that the owner was the driver is that it eliminates the presumption of innocence and shifts the burden of proof from that required by the rules of criminal procedure,” the court concluded. “Therefore the ordinance provides less procedural protection to a person charged with an ordinance violation than is provided to a person charged with a violation of the Act. Accordingly, the ordinance conflicts with the Act and is invalid.”

    The wording isn’t great, and they cited some more issues with requiring the law to be universal across the state (which I didn’t completely understand, but you can find that here: ). It’s interesting that I agree with you on all those points, and yet this one does show that it could potentially be impossible (or improbable) to defend yourself if somebody else was driving your car and went through a red light.

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    • Michael Cassidy says:

      In my country, like the UK poster above you get a letter in the mail. You can respond I was driving, or I was not driving this person was driving here are there details. You can also get another driver to sign the letter saying they were driving and the fine and any demerit points will be attributed to them.

      Also perhaps your state could get around it by not making it a criminal matter. If its not a criminal offence then surely the criminal presumption of innocence does not need to apply.

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  7. Colin Young says:

    I think you missed one of the bigger issues that I hear from people who fall into the “RLCs are bad because they just exist to generate revenue” and that is in addition to installing the camera, it is alleged that some cities are shortening the duration of the amber light. I cannot recall if I’ve ever seen any reliable documentation whether or not that has ever happened.

    If the amber light is of appropriate length for the road speed, and people are travelling at an appropriate speed, there is no need to “slam on the brakes”. Maybe the cameras need to record the length of the amber light at the time of the offence.

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    • Cral says:

      Another thing to consider is that the studies may be biased. I can’t find the article, but I remember reading about a city that added a RLC as a test. I can’t remember if they shortened the yellow light before the RLC was installed or if they lengthened afterword, but they claimed that the RLC “saved lives because there were less accidents.”

      An independent study later concluded that the reduced number of accidents was due to the change in yellow light length, not the addition of the RLC, and that the city had knowingly altered the study by intentionally changing the yellow time.

      Makes me wonder if any other municipality did the same in order to skew the results.

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  8. Grog says:

    What about equal enforcement? RLCs in Washington issue to the registered owner of a vehicle and has a human review process. The result is that commercial and govenment vehicles don’t have tickets issued, or are dropped when the registered owner signs the affadavit that they were not the driver at the time of infraction.

    To tell if they a city is focused on safety or revenue generation, look at their yellow light times. If shorter than appropriate, they are creating unsafe conditions and increasing violations. If they add cameras after already increasing the yellow light time, then they probably really care.

    I have never received a citation from a RLC.

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