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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.