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.


Jen

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.

Brian

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...

Dave Loete

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.

Arlen

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.

Mariana

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).

bob

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.

aubrey

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

Scott

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.

Jason

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.

Tim Donaldson

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.

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Ben Miller

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.

Brian Moore

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.

http://blog.motorists.org/6-cities-that-were-caught-shortening-yellow-light-times-for-profit/

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

http://www.theagitator.com/google/?cx=partner-pub-9453823870796023%3Af87ir1gxdn6&cof=FORID%3A9&ie=ISO-8859-1&q=red+light+camera&sa=Search&siteurl=www.theagitator.com%2F

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)

http://blog.motorists.org/iihs-flawed-ticket-camera-press-release/

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Nosybear

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.

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Peter

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: http://www.thenewspaper.com/news/16/1688.asp ). 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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Colin Young

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.

Grog

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.

Grog

I should clarify, WA not D.C.

Ben Sauer

One thing you fail to account for here is that many people ticketed by these cameras aren't actually committing the violations. I got a ticket for a light when I wasn't driving the vehicle. The driver hadn't run the light as was apparent from the video on careful observation. It was a brief stop completed between frames of a very low rate video.
When I asserted my defense by mail (as is the law here), the receiving court mailed it to the camera company in another state and they discarded it.
One can be in favor of stopping red light violations by automated means without favoring this type of enforcement mechanism and most people would be but I doubt that many know the details.
Secondarily, you pulled a large bait and switch. You went to a bunch of the academic data which is fair enough to say the cameras help and then you said that many people are opposed to right turn tickets but not running the light tickets. Then you went entirely anecdotal in claiming that this was dangerous too. There should be data here as well.
Third, there are people who favor removing all traffic control devices. I'd advise you to start reading the National Motorists Blog. While perhaps a bit over the top, they do present some full arguments for the counter position.
Fourth, one other significant aspect that is missing when the machine gives a ticket is prosecutorial discretion. If a policeman were to stop me for inadvertently running a stop sign in a desolate part of town because of a reasonable distraction that caused me to miss it he may well excuse me knowing that I've learned my lesson. But the camera can't do that. It can't hear my defense. (Some might say, I can show up in court and offer it, but there are two major problems with this. First, likely by the time I am accused I don't remember the details. Second, the cost of fighting one of these tickets is significant. The ticket I mentioned above, I estimate it took me one day of time to get it disposed of. It would have been cheaper to pretend to be guilty than to do the right thing.)

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Iljitsch van Beijnum

I'm completely with you, red light cameras are a plus on many levels.

I have no idea what the fines are for running a red light, but maybe it makes sense to let people off with a warning the first time or start with a low fine and increase it as someone is caught more often.

Not sure how the insurance industry is helped by falsely claiming that the cameras make things safer. Their only interest is real safety, that's the only kind that saves them money.

Jeff

I think you've left out two important points. (1) Cameras create an incentive to make intersections less safe. Cities can raise ticket revenues by shortening yellow light durations. Shortened yellow light durations increase right-angle crashes. (2) All the beneficial effects you cite for the cameras also result from longer yellow light durations.

It's a better policy to increase yellow light durations and eliminate cameras.