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Are red-light cameras putting profit over safety?

As local government budgets are being sliced all over the country, more and more cities and counties are relying on technology to help enforce the law, particularly when it comes to traffic violations. But in this high-tech setup, is public safety taking a back seat to profit? A new report raises questions about local government officials placing traffic technology -- specifically red-light cameras -- in the hands of for-profit companies.

Nearly 700 U.S. jurisdictions -- encompassing an estimated one-fifth of Americans -- have installed automated red-light cameras, which snap photographs of cars that venture past the stop line after the light at an intersection has turned red. Local law enforcement officials verify the violations and then send tickets to the vehicles’ registered drivers. Some states, including Arizona and California, also report the violations to auto insurance companies, which can result in increased premiums for three to five years.

red light cameras The drivers’ fines can provide a substantial boost to a government operating budget: In New Orleans, for instance, annual revenue from red-light violations has jumped from less than $3.5 million in 2008 (before red-light cameras were installed) to $18 million for 2011.

However, this revenue increase comes at a cost to the public interest, U.S. PIRG, a nonprofit public interest advocacy group, says in a new report. Red-light cameras are provided and operated by private vendors, which may create payment incentives that prioritize profit over safety. For instance, U.S. PIRG points out that in Suffolk County, N.Y., the local government splits its revenue from red-light traffic violations with its vendor, Affiliated Computer Services Inc.

Camera vendors also are employing lobbyists to influence traffic safety laws and regulations. In Florida, American Traffic Solutions Inc. paid $1.5 million on lobbying and political campaigns throughout 2011 to win red-light camera contracts and fight legislation that would ban red-light cameras.

“The emphasis is on revenue generation rather than public safety,” says John Bowman, a spokesman for the National Motorists Association, an advocacy group for drivers. “These companies set up contracts that limit the abilities of the cities to control their own intersections in terms of yellow-light times and engineering improvements.”

Are red-light cameras really effective?

While more tickets are being issued as a result of red-light cameras, analysts are mixed on whether the cameras actually are changing drivers’ behavior.

A study from the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found in favor of the cameras, claiming they reduced the rate of fatal-red light accidents in 14 U.S. cities by 24 percent between 2004 and 2008. “There are few things more important to public interest than having safer roads,” says Russ Rader, the institute's vice president of communications. “Red-light cameras make roads safer and save lives.”

However, other studies have shown conflicting evidence. The Virginia Department of Transportation, for instance, found that such technology often leads to other types of car accidents. “Drivers approach an intersection, get skittish when they see the cameras, jam on the breaks at the last second and get rear-ended,” says Bowman, the National Motorists Association spokesman.

A long-term study conducted by the Australian Road Research Board in Melbourne, Australia, which has used red-light cameras since 1984, came to a similar conclusion: Red-light cameras proved ineffective as a safety measure.

“We oppose the use of red-light cameras in any situation,” Bowman says. “If the goal is to improve public safety, cameras don’t do the trick.”

Charles Territo, vice president of communications at American Traffic Solutions, one of the country's largest providers of red-light cameras, believes the cameras are a necessary tool.

“Traffic patrol is one of the most labor-intensive jobs that law enforcement does,” Territo says. “It’s not only time-consuming, but dangerous. Officers are turning to technology to help enhance road safety, which allows them to devote resources to fighting other crimes.”

Alternatives to red-light cameras

Although budget limitations may reduce the ability of local police to physically patrol for traffic violators, there are other low-cost methods that can reduce accidents at intersections.

Minor physical modifications to dangerous intersections often are effective. In Detroit, AAA Michigan worked with city engineers to identify problem intersections and provide physical improvements, such as re-striping left-turn lanes, re-timing traffic signals and enlarging traffic light lenses by 50 percent. During the first 27 months after completing the improvements, crashes at these intersections decreased by nearly 50 percent.

"Some intersections are designed so motorists tend to violate the red -- we can reduce that through engineering rather than enforcement," AAA Michigan’s transportation engineering manager, David Feber, says in a statement.

Simply changing the timing of lights can help as well. In a Texas Transportation Institute study, researchers found that extending yellow lights by just one second could reduce traffic violations by 53 percent.

Using red-light cameras properly

Although municipalities can increase traffic safety through other measures, the prevalence of red-light cameras is likely to grow simply because of the revenue-boosting opportunities.

U.S. PIRG recommends that local government officials avoid financial incentives for red-light camera vendors based on the volume of red-light tickets, work to retain public control over traffic safety decisions and keep alive the option to cancel the vendor’s contract early if the technology fails to work.

“Some states have a real mess with their red-light camera programs. Other states are now wading into the waters. We’d like to see states that already have camera programs reform them and states considering programs learn from the mistakes of others,” Ryan Pierannunzi, an associate with U.S. PIRG, says in a statement.

When municipalities outsource their traffic safety monitoring, it’s essential to keep tabs on the relationship between the local government and the private vendor, U.S. PIRG says.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety agrees. “Communities need to be cautious that they have ultimate control over who is ticketed and where the cameras are placed,” Rader says.

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