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Red-light cameras give green light to debate over traffic safety

Red-light safety cameras, which automatically detect when drivers run red lights, are being heralded by some for promoting road safety and decreasing traffic-related fatalities. But others say the cameras come at a cost, infringing upon drivers’ rights and in some cases causing new safety concerns.

The cameras work because they serve as a deterrent, says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit organization that works to reduce deaths, injuries and property damage resulting from crashes. “They dissuade drivers from running red lights at all intersections because drivers recognize that the chance of getting a ticket is much higher.”

auto insurance red light cameras The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently released a study that found that red-light cameras saved 159 lives between 2004 and 2008 in 14 U.S. cities with populations of at least 200,000, including Portland, Ore.; Chicago; and Washington, D.C. If the cameras had been operating in all large cities during those four years, 815 deaths would have been prevented, the study says.

"The cities that have the courage to use red-light cameras despite the political backlash are saving lives," the institute's president, Adrian Lund, said in a statement.

How red-light cameras work

These cameras detect the movement of vehicles through an intersection after the light has turned red. According to Redflex Traffic Systems, a Phoenix company that produces the cameras, underground electromagnetic sensors pick up a vehicle’s presence as it approaches the intersection.

Once the light turns red, a camera captures an image of the vehicle as it enters the intersection, as well as a close-up of the license plate. Another camera captures a picture of the car once it’s in the intersection during the red-light cycle. A data bar displayed on top of all still images includes the date time, location, vehicle speed and posted speed limit.

Once three images and 12 seconds of video are captured, several people analyze the data before it's sent to police. At that point, a police officer determines whether a violation has taken place and, if so, the police department sends a ticket to the owner of the vehicle.

While the process is efficient, it is not driver-friendly, says Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association, a Waunakee, Wis.-based organization that protects the rights of motorists.

“The cameras provide no positive identification of who’s driving the vehicle,” Biller says.

Not only that, but with tickets typically issued three or four weeks after the fact, a driver must remember what the circumstances were when the violation occurred.

“If a live officer stopped somebody, you’re certainly going to have a positive identification of who’s behind the wheel, and the officer can use his or her discretion about whether other circumstances should be taken into consideration," Biller says.

Some critics complain that the biggest motivation to install the cameras has not been safety concerns, but rather generating revenue from traffic tickets.

Red-light camera safety concerns

Today, about 500 U.S. cities use red-light cameras, up from just 25 cities in 2000, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. While the organization points to a decrease in traffic deaths in cities where the cameras are used, some other studies have painted a different picture of the cameras’ effectiveness.

Biller points to a Washington Post study from 2005 showing that in Washington, D.C., accidents had risen in intersections where the cameras were placed.

“Invariably, when cameras are installed, you see the rear-end collision rate climb,” Biller says. “It’s kind of the age-old driver instinct thing where whether you see a police cruiser on the side of the road or you see a sign or the cameras up ahead, your first instinct is to hit the brakes.”

The National Motorists Association also finds fault with the recent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study, because it didn't track the change in deaths at specific intersections where traffic cameras are located, but rather tracked the change in traffic deaths in the cities as a whole. As a result, a citywide reduction in traffic-related deaths “was credited to red-light cameras even though there was a mix of intersections with and without cameras,” Biller says.

Rader argues that the study shows red-light safety cameras don’t just affect the intersections where they are installed, but rather all intersections in a particular city.

“Generally speaking, cities publicize the fact that they’re using photo enforcement at intersections,” Rader says. “The drivers aren’t always cognizant of exactly where the cameras are located, so they’re being more careful at all intersections when the light is changing.”

Regardless of what side you fall on in the red-light safety camera debate, it’s clear that many drivers are slowing down when they approach intersections if they fear a camera could catch them breaking the law. When it comes to auto insurance costs, that could be a good thing.

“Red-light cameras are an effective means of deterring motorists from speeding, which can ultimately help with insurance rates,” says Loretta Worters, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute.

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