Red Eye

Drivers hate 'em and cities love 'em for the revenue potential. Here's an update on those pesky intersection cameras.

by / July 3, 2002
A debate currently under way considers red-light cameras: Are they a common-sense use of technology to protect our safety or are they "scameras," devices designed to rip off unsuspecting motorists and fill local coffers?

The introduction of this technology at intersections around the country has generated both controversy and revenue. So far, the jury is out on which view will prevail. But judging by the growing number of municipalities that are using the cameras, it looks like photo enforcement is with us for a while.

The cameras catch red-light violators by automatically photographing the vehicle crossing an intersection after the light has turned red. The camera is connected to the traffic signal and sensors buried in the pavement at the crosswalk or stop line. The cameras snap a picture when a vehicle passes over the sensors a specified time after the signal has turned red.

Reducing the Risk on Red
Every year, over 800 deaths and 200,000 injuries result from red light violations, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Red light cameras are seen as a low-cost tool for reducing some of the carnage that takes place when drivers try to run a red light.

Local municipalities that have installed the cameras consider them to be a cheaper alternative to posting police officers at intersections. The cameras, which cost an average of $50,000 apiece and can operate 24 hours per day, seven days a week, have been shown to reduce red light violations and intersection crashes. A study in Oxnard, Calif., showed red light violations dropped 42 percent after the city installed cameras at nine intersections.

Most cities outsource the red-light camera system. Two leaders in the field are ACS and Lockheed Martin. At least 11 states and the District of Columbia have installed the cameras for red-light running and speeding and more than a dozen countries also use the technology.

One of the biggest camera implementations for red-light running and speeding is in Washington, D.C. The system, run by ACS, has issued more than 500,000 citations, including more than $43 million in fines, and collects over $69,000 per day, according to an article in The Washington Post. ACS was getting approximately 40 percent of each paid ticket.

Yet not all cities make money. Portland, Ore., installed red-light cameras and found drivers putting the brakes on in response. As a result, the number of tickets issued by the system have been far below projections, according to The Oregonian. The city initially projected issuing approximately 25,000 tickets with the photo enforcement system. But it's on pace to issue about 7,000 instead. However, the police have also noticed a significant drop in red-light violations, indicating drivers are much more careful than they were in the past.

Police in Washington, D.C., have reported that the cameras have cut red-light running in the city by as much as 64 percent. The speed cameras have led to a drop in overall speeding violations by 50 percent in the city.

But opponents of red-light cameras -- they call them scameras or gotcha law enforcement -- say municipalities, like Washington, D.C., are cooking the numbers when it comes to issuing violations. The Washington Post reported that because of irregularities, 45 percent of red-light violations caught on camera never result in tickets. Yet the figures are included because calculations are based on the number of violations photographed instead of the number of tickets issued.

Opponents, such as the National Motorists Association, point out that much of the research done on reductions in violations when cameras are installed isn't independent, but paid for by the firms that produce the systems. Critics also don't like the ticket revenue arrangement between cities and the vendors that supply the system. In Washington, D.C., ACS used to receive a 40 percent cut from every ticket issued. Critics argued the arrangement created an incentive for the vendor to issue as many tickets as possible. In reponse, the city changed the way it pays ACS, which now gets a flat fee each month.

Peeping-Tom Government
Then there's the issue of privacy. Opponents claim the red-light cameras infringe on a person's privacy by taking a photo of them without permission. Proponents counter by saying driving is a regulated activity on public roads and drivers are required to abide by certain rules, such as stopping at red lights. The cameras are only turned on when a violation occurs and when a driver is endangering the lives of others by breaking the law.

One alternative pushed by red-light-camera opponents and under consideration by traffic safety groups involves yellow lights. Research has shown that the duration of the interval when the yellow light is on and before the red light appears can affect inadvertent red light running. By slightly modifying this time -- known as the change interval -- traffic engineers can reduce the risk of crashes. One study conducted in New York reported 8 percent fewer crashes involving injuries after yellow signals were retimed. The number of accidents involving pedestrians and bicyclists dropped even further.

But as long as drivers continue to run red lights -- no matter how long the change interval for yellow lasts -- there will be pressure to use the cameras to capture violators on film. And opponents will argue just as vociferously that the traffic cameras have nothing to do with improving safety and everything to do with increasing revenue.
Tod Newcombe Features Editor