Your City Needs You to Blow Through Red Lights

Some towns promote good citizenship even though it doesn’t pay off.

Dallas discovered this when the traffic light cameras monitoring its busiest intersections worked so well that the city had to decommission more than one-fourth of them.

Dallas had anticipated an annual $14.8 million for red-light-running fines, money essential to keeping the cameras running — before people stopped running lights and reduced violations more than 50 percent at some locations.

Due to sudden lack of funding, the city council is considering scaling back its camera expansion program or idling certain cameras on a rotating basis.

Maybe Dallas should look into Taiwan’s traffic solution — it’s probably cheaper, though not as safe.

(Hat tip: James Comstock.)


@ #14 : "Shouldn't the fine equal the cost to society? The cost to society could be derived by the economic value place on the deaths plus any repair costs."

What you list is only the cost to society if someone actually causes an accident by running the light. In such cases, the police are called anyway and the person does pay a price (insurance goes up, fines, potential lawsuit, etc).

If someone runs a red light when there is no on-coming traffic, there is no such damage done, so why should such a price be paid?


Hmm.. They can always just follow San Diego's example and shorten the yellow. Bad for safety, good for revenue.

8, 9 & others. The only thing to be outraged about is being duped into thinking the cameras had anything to do with safety. Cameras are for revenue, just like parking meters.

Carlos Manta Oliveira

In Germany and in the UK only a small percentage of speed and red light cameras are "live" (actually have a camera in the box. In the UK these cameras are bright yellow, have a sign warning before-hand, and the pavement (for speed cameras is painted with white stripes to measure distance in the images (I actually believe these stripes are technically useless, but...). Germany however has more of a "candid camera" strategy.

In both cases it is public that only 10 to 20% of the cameras are active or live. But the intention is to use them as a deterrent, to prevent accidents, and not to actually make a profit on them. If profit is the goal you just have to adjust the fine value to the number of accidents. More accidents, cheaper fines, less accidents, more expensive fines. Seems a bit unreasonable to me.

Imagine you are travelling a highway in the UK, and every 2km (or miles) you see a bight yellow post with a random 10% chance of having an active speed camera. You have three changes: you speed all the way through the 50 km and 25 cameras, and trust your luck (and risk 5 fines at least); you slow down just before each camera, and then hit the pedal again (they are clearly signed); you just keep to the speed limit.

I'm not British, but worked over there for some time and found this to be a very clever strategy to prevent speeding. Your article is about red light cameras, but I guess an extrapolation from speed cameras is possible.



People whine the city isn't spending enough money to protect them, but they refuse to pay the taxes required to fund that protection.


A number of cities wrestle with this kind of thing, and they're often not exactly forthcoming with their records when it comes to the revenue side of things. A guy in Columbus, Ohio has been pursuing these records as part of his Ethical Revenue project:


simple solution alert- just install fake cameras


Do you know if this happening in other cities? I would outraged if I knew they took camera down because they stopped making money off of traffic violations. You have got to be kidding me. Is this legal??? That is just nuts!

The baked blogger


simple solution alert- just install fake cameras

- Posted by frankenduf

For safety...yes I agree totally. However, how would they then extract money? Its a catch-22 for the cities...but you are correct. Not all need to be active cameras. Sensible idea for safety - not so much for the department of revenue.


This type of story raises another Freakonomics concept: the price elasticity of demand for traffic violations. Do cities keep the fines for traffic violations below the societal costs in order to keep a steady revenue stream? I would argue that the answer is yes.

For example, the cost to society for red light runners is surely higher than the $100 or so fines that are charged.

Shouldn't the fine equal the cost to society? The cost to society could be derived by the economic value place on the deaths plus any repair costs.


The problem is that cameras don't necessarily improve safety. They just change the type of accidents that happen at that light. Those without cameras have fewer rear-end collisions, but more crossing collisions, while those with cameras are just the opposite.

A link to the Federal Highway Administration study on this is:


So instead of protecting the public and eating the cost, they have decommissioned them. Now let's see how many deaths occur at the intersections where the cameras were decommissioned. It will provide a very insightful view as the the value of a human life, as calculated by the City of Dallas.

Shane Killian

That brings to mind a mock commercial I made a few years ago about speeding cameras in Charlotte; it's in my blog here:


Way to go Dallas. Our roads are safer but we're not making enough money. This is also why towns who heavily depend on ticket revenue have no incentive to provide adequate public parking.

Since the auto insurance companies still have an incentive to reduce accidents, maybe they would be willing to fund some of costs of these cameras. (Ha! Dick Cheney would sooner endorse Obama for president.)

The Dread Pirate Robert

Post #11 has a useful insight, but I would make one modification. Fake cameras would be figured out, however you could have only a few of the cameras online at a time. Humans a inherently afraid of uncertainty.

more info:

"Dallas pays ACS [the camera provider] a guaranteed $3,799 per month for each operational camera, and just a fraction of that to maintain inoperative cameras."
-Dallas News

I could'nt find it to cite it, but there was an experement done in which:
Subjects where given the goal of blindly reaching into a berral and acquiring a white ball.
They where given a choice between two barrels; one with fifty red balls and fifty white balls, and another berrel with and undisclosed amount of both (adding up to one hundred).
As you may have guessed, a subject given this choice is far more likely to chose the known 50/50 chance, than to take an unknown risk (statistically a 50/50 as well).
This shows that a person fears an unknown risk more than a known one.

From this I would think the least red light running would result from cameras that are: real, nonfuctional, or fake. Announce this, and than change and not disclose which are which.

I theorise that people would fear the POSSIBLE ticket more than the CERTAIN one. Hahahaha!



I am surprised that many of you are outraged. When your city administrators come out with a straight face and tell you something isn't about the money, rather its for safety...please understand they tell themselves that as a way they get to sleep at night.

Folks its ALWAYS about the money. Which government departments are quick and efficient? The ones that extract money from you. (i.e. Department of revenue, traffic enforcement, parking enforcement, etc. )

Which ones are slow, plodding and inneffective? The ones that provide services at little or no cost. (i.e. Traffic Court appeals, unemployment offices, child support and DCFS, animal control etc.)

Expect less and the worst from your public officials like we do in Chicago and life will be easier...if not cheaper.


Dallas citizens should be outraged!

Revenue enhancement vs. safety?

The reason for the picture taking devices was to stop red light infractions and the horrible crashes that ensued. It works! So why now remove them? Talk about idiots.


I spent some time in Lafayette, LA, where they have a vast number of red light cameras oursourced to a camera provider (not sure if it's ACS or not), and have the following observations:

- The duration of the yellow lights varied significantly all across town, and also changed at a specific intersection, so a driver never knew what to expect. This made driving a frustrating experience since I never knew what to expect.

- The yellow/red light for the oncoming lanes of traffic did not turn at the same time as my lane. So if my lane turned red, the oncoming cars may or may not also stop for up to ten or so seconds. This especially made it hard to make left turns. This made driving a frustrating experience since I never knew what to expect.

- The lights were poorly timed, making getting across town a real hassle. I asked the city traffic engineers and managers about this and they told me it is intentionally done to reduce speed. Of course, for me it did the opposite, since I constantly hot-rodded in order to get to the next intersection in the hopes of not getting stuck at a light. This definitely made driving a frustrating experience since I never knew what to expect.

- The vast number of red light cameras (and also swiveling surveillance cameras) made me think that freedom, privacy and the American way had been completely disregarded and trampled upon, making me a frustrated and hostile driver. This definitely made driving a frustrating experience since I never knew what to expect....other than my tax dollars were being used against me in the name of safety.

So, for me, the red light cameras increased my frustration level to the point that I would drive like an idiot to show that I was in control of my own life.



Wasn't there just a study that said red light cameras cause more accidents? If true, a system that reduces revenue and raises costs both directly (purchase and maintenance) and indirectly (more accidents = more first responders on the clock) should probably be scrapped.

Prestige Bridging

Interesting and useful, thanks.


Y'know, I remember reading that the NMA had observed a traffic study in Dallas, and they found that the greatest reduction in red light runs came from lengthening the duration of the yellow lights, not from the cameras, but since both solutions were rolled out at the same time they had a resulting correlation-causation problem.

Oh, and the other thing they don't tell you? People just slow down/don't run lights at the particular intersections with the others, they blow right through them with impunity because the cops aren't watching for that activity anymore. I live in Cleveland where the cameras are also common, and that's exactly what I see. What would be more interesting would be to see Dallas do a study of how many accidents they have per year, like Taiwan, and where those accidents occur. My guess is that while there would be a marked decrease at the camera intersections, you would actually see an increase at other locations around the cameras as the locals got wise to the scheme.