Red Light Cameras – Problem or Solution

You can pretty much count on the fact that one person’s good idea is another person’s big problem. Red light cameras are another of those disputes we seem to have to work our way around. Cities seem to like red light cameras. They look like they may generate revenue from tickets at a relatively low cost; systems run around $50,000 with installation and sensors adding about $5,000 to the tab.

Motorists pretty much do not like red light cameras. They seem, well, a little unsportsmanlike. After all sooner or later almost all of us will speed – just a little – and roll a stop sign or two. If there’s a policeman there on the corner and we get caught it’s sort of like part of the game of driving. You get to explain to the policeman that a high heel got caught under the accelerator pedal or that you were headed for the hospital to be there in time for the birth of your first child.  On the other hand, cameras are impersonal and they are always on; you don’t get to argue the merits of why it was necessary to go through the light – it feels like big brother really is watching you.

Just a few days ago the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released the results of a study that suggest red light cameras do a lot to reduce the incidence of running red lights – at least at high-risk intersections.  The research, conducted in Arlington VA showed that red-light running violations went down at intersections with cameras; an earlier 2011 study of large U.S. cities determined cameras reduced the rate of fatal red-light running collisions by 24 percent.

Red light cameras are not widely used in Washington auto law enforcement.  A map of locations available here shows none on the Olympic Peninsula and only a handful scattered in Eastern Washington – the bulk are in the Seattle-Tacoma corridor.  Opponents of the systems have tried alternatives to barring or removing them but this seems difficult if a local jurisdiction wants to put them in place.  The Washington State Supreme Court ruled last year that cameras cannot be banned by local initiatives – the state legislature put local governments in charge. 

While there seems to be increasing evidence that red light cameras reduce the incidence of the problem, there isn’t general agreement about their value.  The National Motorists Association opposes them and says they cause an increase in accidents; the NMA promotes engineering solutions as the best fix for intersections with high accident rates.  In a 3 month span last year articles on the effectiveness or cost effectiveness of red light cameras delivered opposite conclusions.  A CNBC report in October 2012 concluded that these systems were helping “cash strapped cities” and there was evidence for their effectiveness, citing some of the same IIHS data mentioned above. In November of 2012 The Atlanta Journal Constitution published an article on a moderated discussion that presented evidence for and against;  by January 2013 the Lakeland Ledger was publishing a reader’s report of research that purported to show that they were neither cost effective nor necessarily safety enhancing.  

It may take a while longer before all the data sort out neatly both on the safety and the financial side of the argument.  Till that happens, we hope we don’t need to see any out here on the Peninsula.  We have plenty of other things to occupy our attention.

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