Red light camera programs have garnered much negative publicity in recent years but some jurisdictions are sold on them; they're deploying red light camera programs -- and even speed cameras -- to improve public safety and put extra money in city coffers.
Studies of camera systems point to mixed results nationally. But some jurisdictions have concluded after trial runs that the programs work, claiming the camera systems reduce the number and severity of traffic accidents and produce revenue as a byproduct.
Seattle plans to have 30 cameras working citywide by the end of this year after a successful pilot program convinced officials of their value.
In Knoxville, Tenn., 15 intersections were outfitted with red light cameras in 2007 and officials there say the cameras reduced crashes by 18 percent. The city's traffic deaths decreased from 36 in 2006 to 22 in 2007, and the cameras generated an extra $955,013 for the city's general fund.
Portland, Ore., expanded its red light camera arsenal after four years of fewer accidents and increased revenue as a result of the program. The city's net revenue for the four-year period was $295,000, even as the number of red-light violations dropped by 1.75 per hour and the number of injuries by as much as 30 percent.
In Arizona, a nine-month pilot helped convince Gov. Janet Napolitano of the effectiveness of speed cameras, prompting her to announce in August a statewide system of 200 fixed and mobile speed and red light cameras.
A review of the pilot revealed that it had lowered the average speed on Arizona Highway Loop 101 by 9 mph, cut single vehicle collisions by 63 percent and reduced injuries by 48 percent.
"It's a force multiplier in that it allows our officers to focus on other major collision-causing violations like reckless drivers [and] aggressive drivers," said Tom Woodward, commander of the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
Arizona placed six stationary cameras on Highway Loop 101 that resulted in fewer accidents and injuries, and reduced the overall speed of traffic. The state also used mobile enforcement, consisting of a vehicle with a mounted camera in a corridor area, that showed promising results.
On the first day of the deployment, the mobile camera was activated 350 times. That dropped to just 19 times by the fifth day. "We saw a very significant reduction in speeds in a high-collision corridor, which is also by nature difficult to effectively work traffic because it's congested and has a lot of private drives," Woodward said.
Arizona plans to deploy many of the new camera systems in "stack interchanges" where there are major junctions, and the state expects a reduction in collisions as a result. "If you slow down traffic, you do a couple of things," Woodward said. "One is you greatly reduce stopping distances, so when something happens in those major junctions where traffic suddenly slows down, people can stop safely. The other is you even out the disparity of speeds that is harmful where people are merging, getting off, changing lanes, that kind of thing."
In Seattle's yearlong pilot, results showed red light running decreased by 50 percent at the four intersections where cameras were present, according to Mike Quinn, strategic adviser to Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske. "We also found that the severity of accidents decreased as well," he said. That would suggest a drop in the number of broadside collisions.
Opponents of red light cameras suggest that a decrease in the broadside collisions (one of the most common and dangerous types of accidents) coincides with an increase in rear-end crashes as drivers slam on their brakes to avoid going through red lights. But Seattle's pilot found no increase in rear-end collisions, Quinn said. "That's worth noting because that's not what we've seen from other research nationally," he said.
The goal of expanding the program is to reach a point where motorists drive safely on a consistent basis. "As we get the technology more uniformly present in the city, I think driver caution will increase even more than it has to date," Quinn said.
Seattle placed six cameras at four intersections where red light running and broadside accidents were relatively frequent and had positive results from all of the intersections. "They all had plenty of business," Quinn said. But that doesn't mean the answer to an unsafe intersection is necessarily a red light camera program.
The geometry of intersections varies, and those variations can impact safety. "They're not all created equal," Quinn said. "Some present much tougher safety situations than others. Some have good sightlines in all directions; others have terrible sightlines, and if you make a bad judgment, it could be lethal because you can't see."
That variance among intersections, along with the negative results of some red light camera deployments, leads the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to lean toward re-engineering of intersections rather than using red light cameras, said Jake Kononov, director of research for CDOT.
"Prior to installing the red light cameras, we ought to examine accident causality and the reason for overrepresentation [in red light running or accidents] and if nothing else works, which is unlikely, then let's talk about the red light cameras," Kononov said.
Timing is Everything
In Aurora, Colo., accidents increased by 36 percent in 2006 at four intersections where cameras were installed. In Fort Collins, Colo., 10 years after a camera was installed at one intersection, accidents had increased there consistently. After the timing of the yellow light was increased by one second, crashes dropped 29 percent and tickets fell from 166 a month to 21 per month.
Yellow light timing is one of several factors that could lead to a dangerous intersection, Kononov said. "If we [CDOT] see a pattern of broadsides, we may observe that the yellow plus red light interval is not properly timed or you have something blocking the signal head. If we have an unusually high number of broadsides, it is not because we have bad drivers; it's probably because there is something about this particular intersection, such as signal-head visibility or arterial progression; these are the kinds of issues that lead to overrepresentation of broadsides."
There are federal guidelines for how long the yellow light should be, and most states and municipalities follow them. It's usually three to five seconds. It's recommended that yellow light times are one second for every 10 mph. Kononov said there's no reason to go below the three-second mark, and extending the yellow can make a big difference. In Dallas, for example, the city shut down a quarter of its red light cameras because the city cameras weren't bringing in revenue after the city extended the yellow light interval.
Quinn said the Seattle Department of Transportation considers many alternatives to red light cameras before deploying them, including working with signal locations, signal size and approach signs.
"We look closely at accident data, and our red light vendor monitors the frequency of red light running," he said. "We look at right angle collisions and put those two things together to make a short list of candidate intersections [for cameras]."
Kononov said the most reputable study, published by the Transportation Research Board of National Academies, found that in dollars (injury and property damage) the decline in broadsides combined with the increase in rear-end crashes produced "a wash."
Yet Arizona reported saving $16.5 million in reduced property damage, medical expenses and insurance costs during its one-year pilot.
Napolitano has acknowledged that revenue from the cameras is a plus, considering the state's $1 billion budget gap. Seattle budgeted $460,000 for its one-year pilot project, but found after 11 months it had spent just $320,000 and was able to extend the program six months longer than anticipated. During those first 11 months, the city generated $900,000 in citations.
These camera systems are operated and managed by the vendors, and the cities get a percentage of revenues, up to a certain point. For instance, in Knoxville the city collects 15 percent of revenues up to $4,500 per camera per month. Revenues beyond $4,500 a month are split 50-50 with the vendor.
The revenue is nice, Quinn said, but public safety is the priority when deciding whether to deploy these programs. "If, as a byproduct, we more than break even and have more dollars to go to our general fund purposes, that's OK," he said. "But that's not our purpose. If we can't demonstrate positive safety effects, we shouldn't be in the business."