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Do Red Light Cameras Prevent Accidents… or Cause Them?

Last week the city of Duluth, Georgia announced that they would reactive three red light cameras they had previously deactivated in March due to the high cost of service. According to the city, while the red light cameras kept accidents and traffic violations down, they also kept citations down, meaning that revenue from the cameras was failing to pay for their operation.

After the city of Duluth cancelled their contract in March, LaserCraft – the company hired to man the red light cameras – continued to monitor traffic at the three intersections and found that traffic violations soared when drivers knew the cameras were no longer in service. The city did not hand out any statistics on accident prevention, but as we discussed last week at the MLN Law Blog, running red lights is one of the Top 10 most lethal driving mistakes and 75% of accidents occur in cities due to drivers stepping on the gas instead of the break when they see yellow.

Murfreesboro, Tennessee did run some accident comparisons when first installing their red light cameras and found some positive results. According to the city police chief, side impact collisions at red lights dropped by 8% at intersections where the cameras were located.

But all the news wasn’t so rosy. While side impact crashes decreased, rear impact crashes actually increased by 24% at the same intersections. According to Murfreesboro police, the aim of the red light cameras was to decrease side impact crashes because they are ultimately more dangerous to drivers and passengers. They also announced that drivers involved in rear impact crashes at the sites of red light cameras did not indicate that stopping quickly due to the cameras was a factor in their wrecks.

Many private citizens and some groups, such as the National Motorists Association (admittedly a group that advocates such “common sense” traffic laws as raising speed limits), are not impressed by claims that red light cameras improve safety when the actual number of wrecks at an intersection increases. To back up their claims, other studies conducted by the North Carolina A&T State University’s Urban Transit Institute (on behalf of the U.S. Department of Transportation), the Virginia Transportation Research Council and the Ontario Ministry of Transportation also showed an increase in rear end collisions at sites with red light cameras. See a U.S. Department of Transportation study with the same findings here.

Anti-red light camera groups maintain that the devices are all about introducing automated revenue generating machines for counties and municipalities, and point out that, even then, an increase in the number of crashes necessitates more response by firefighters, police and paramedics and causes more damage to vehicles overall.

On the other hand, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety points out that red light running is the most common cause of fatalities in urban wrecks. The Institute also reports that in a study conducted in 2000 that most Americans do indeed support red light cameras.

The red light camera debate is an interesting argument with good points from all sides. While red light cameras may increase collisions, they also seem to lower fatalities. What are you opinions on red light cameras? Are they money making machines or worthwhile safety precautions?