Curtailing Carnage at the Traffic Light:
Are Cameras the Answer?

Two years ago, my wife was waiting at a traffic light after leaving a shopping mall in Flint, Michigan. When the light changed from red to green, she entered the intersection. She was immediately hit by a motorist "running a red light." Had this accident occurred a fraction of a second later, my wife could have been severely (or fatally) injured.

"Running red lights" is a serious problem, not just in Michigan, but also across the country. Aside from head-on collisions, this is the most dangerous type of automobile accident. In 2001, according to the Federal Highway Administration, there were 103,000 red light running crashes that resulted in 84,000 injuries and 1,131 deaths. Reducing the number of accidents caused by people running red lights will not be easy. Many drivers view the negative consequences of "running a red light" to be minimal. Other motorists fail to see, or are ignorant of, the danger to themselves or to others. In addition, very few have ever seen anyone get a ticket for "running a red light."

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There are several ways to address the "running red lights" problem. The first option is to position police at intersections with the highest incidence of "red light running." The police presence (along with the issuing of citations) helps to curtail the number of infractions and the number of injuries associated with running red lights. However, unless a patrol car is permanently assigned to monitor each dangerous intersection, this is only a temporary fix.

The second option involves the use of a camera. At first blush, this seems like a promising solution (especially if your wife has almost been killed). The camera is activated when a vehicle enters the intersection after the light turns red. The system operates 24 hours a day and records the license plate number, plus the time, date, and location of the infraction. A ticket is then mailed to the registered owner of the car.

To date, 50 cities in fifteen states have adopted this approach. So far, Michigan is not among them. While it’s true that the incidence of red-light running has been significantly reduced through the use of these cameras, some unintended and unacceptable consequences have come to light.

It is wrong to automatically assume that the owner of the car is the person running the red light. Civil libertarians and others find this robotic form of law enforcement to be one step closer to a Big Brother society.

Some states do not allow a picture to be taken of the driver’s face because of "privacy concerns." As a result, friends, children or even car thieves can run red lights without punishment. The innocent chump who just happens to own the car will automatically be presumed guilty. Using this line of reasoning, a person who commits a crime with a handgun will not be held responsible either. The guilty party will automatically be the registered owner of the handgun.

For habitual red-light runners, there is some good news in this arrangement. No "points" will ever be assessed on the owner’s driving record (no matter how bad the driver is or how many red light tickets are issued).

While red light running accidents have decreased, these cameras have caused an increase in rear-end collisions. Motorists become so panic-stricken about being ticketed that they slam on their breaks as soon as the light turns yellow. This sudden stop causes the next driver to "rear-end" the suddenly stopped car.

The stated purpose of the camera use is safety. However, there is a nagging concern that their use will eventually "morph" into a "revenue enhancement" medium for financially strapped municipalities. A citation for running a red light can cost a motorist up to $270 in some cities. In just 18 months, the city of San Diego grossed $30 million from its 19 traffic light cameras.

This concern for abuse becomes even more pronounced when an outside for-profit camera vendor splits the per-ticket revenue with the city. This creates a definite conflict-of-interest for both parties. For example, both the city and the vendor could reap a hefty financial windfall if the yellow light timer were to be "incorrectly adjusted." A lawsuit filed against San Diego "revealed the intersections most often selected for camera placement were those most likely to yield violations, such as intersections with yellow lights of short duration."

Washington D.C. clearly illustrates a city that has "morphed." The District installed 39 red-light cameras in 1999. In a per-ticket arrangement, the Dallas-based company Affiliated Computer Services (ACS) received $32.50 for every ticket issued and the District got the rest. In the three years since the program began, the District has collected $19.2 million from the red-light camera tickets. By strategically placing the cameras, it was possible to predominately rip off the non-DC residents. Approximately 75 percent of the District’s red-light camera tickets were issued to drivers from Maryland, Virginia and other states. This is similar to the Florida hotel tax where tourists pay the majority of the tax. The DC mayor, Anthony Williams, denies the allegation that the camera-generated revenue was a "proxy for a commuter tax."

Given the District’s $323 million budgetary shortfall, it is not surprising that the "revenue generation" temptation associated with these "scameras" would eventually trump the "safety" ruse. On September 26, 2002, Mayor Williams said that he wanted to expand the use of traffic cameras "because the city needs the money."

As a result of this public acknowledgement, AAA withdrew its support for the District's traffic camera enforcement program. When safety takes a back seat to fleecing citizens, something is terribly wrong in city hall.

Fortunately, there is a third alternative there bears little resemblance to the heavy-handed and abuse-prone D.C. model. By actually studying the red light problem, AAA of Michigan found that there were many other factors involved besides simply overly aggressive (road rage) and impatient motorists. In many cases, the red light runners were simply not paying attention. A study in Travis County Texas found that drivers aged 65 or older were twice as likely to run red lights as drivers under 65. Other factors contributing to the problem included poorly designed intersections, sequence timing errors, and poor maintenance.

AAA Michigan and the City of Detroit jointly implemented a pilot program to improve the safety at four dangerous intersections. First, the timing of the lights was altered. The yellow light duration was increased from four seconds to five and a half seconds. When the light finally switched from yellow to red, the light in the opposite direction did not simultaneously turn green. There was a one-to-two second interval when the lights in both directions were red. Both of these actions helped to safely clear the intersection. Other changes included increasing the size of the traffic light lens by fifty percent and placing the entire light in a more conspicuous position.

During the first 27 months that the four pilot projects were in operation, the number of red light running crashes decreased by 47 percent and those involving injuries decreased by 50 percent. These results clearly show that it is possible to solve a safety problem without the draconian baggage that comes with traffic cameras. This solution effectively removes the temptation by city hall to use "safety" as a justification to stiff its citizens.

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Michael Heberling, Ph.D., ( an adjunct scholar with the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy and also president of the Baker College Center for Graduate Studies in Flint, Michigan.