Do red light cameras work too well?
Some cities rethink devices as drivers pay heed, reducing fine revenue
By Alex Johnson
updated 4:59 p.m. PT, Thurs., March. 20, 2008
Last week, Dallas officials reviewed the numbers and decided that a quarter of the cameras they had installed to catch motorists running red lights were too effective. So they shut them down.
They are not alone. Faced with data showing that drivers pay attention to cameras at intersections — resulting in fewer ticketable violations and ever-shrinking revenue from fines — municipalities across the country are reconsidering red light cameras, which often work too well.
At the heart of the discussions taking place in city councils and county commissions is tension between the twin benefits that were touted when local governments began installing cameras about a decade and a half ago. Officials were promised that the cameras — which generally speaking take snapshots of busy intersections at the instant the light turns red, capturing the license plates of any cars that are still in the intersection — would simultaneously save lives and generate millions of dollars in extra fines.
The first half of that equation is arguably true: A federal study found a small but measurable reduction in injuries nationwide in accidents at intersections monitored by cameras, though there was an increase in some kinds of collisions.
It is the second half of the equation that may be beginning to collapse. As drivers learn where the cameras are, they are more careful. Fewer of them run red lights. Local governments collect fewer fines.
Fewer violations = less revenue
Sometimes, as in Dallas, cameras generate so little revenue that they can’t even pay for themselves.
Citywide statistics obtained by NBC affiliate KXAS-TV found that red light cameras do reduce accidents. That is a good thing.
But they do it by reducing red light violations, by as much as 29 percent from month to month at particularly busy Dallas intersections. On the face of it, that, too, is a good thing — but not, necessarily, if you rely on traffic fines to make up a healthy chunk of your budget.
Dallas lawmakers originally estimated gross revenue of $15 million from their 62 cameras this fiscal year, which ends June 30. But City Manager Mary Suhm estimated last week that the city would fall short by more than $4 million.
So Friday, the city turned off about a quarter of the least profitable cameras, saying it couldn’t justify the cost of running them.
Safety benefits questioned
Dallas was just following the lead of several other cities that have shut down red light cameras in recent months:
City officials in Charlotte and Fayetteville, N.C., recently turned off all of their red light cameras, concluding that a state law diverting much of the revenue they generate in fines to schools meant their general funds were actually losing money, NBC affiliate WNCN of Raleigh reported.
San Diego temporarily shut down all of its red light cameras late last year pending a lawsuit that sought $27 million in damages, alleging that the city’s system was unconstitutional because it was run by a private company. The city’s system faces a separate class-action suit targeting evidence gathered by cameras as illegal.
Officials in Bolingbrook, Ill., ended their red light camera program after statistics showed a 40 percent drop in ticketable offenses.
It’s not always lower revenue that leads municipalities to question whether red light cameras are worth it.
In Lubbock, Texas, for example, the City Council shut down all cameras last month, citing a report that showed statistically significant increases in rear-end collisions at intersections, including those with cameras.
Rear-end collisions, in fact, have been cited in numerous reports and lawsuits questioning the benefits of red light cameras. Opponents claim that the cameras actually create more hazardous conditions.
“When people know there’s a red light camera, they change their driving behavior, and they slam on their brakes trying to avoid a ticket,” said Tom McCarey, an activist for the National Motorists Association. The association, which is based in Waunakee, Wis., calls itself a 6,000-member group “dedicated to representing and protecting the rights and interests of North American motorists.”
Federal study largely inconclusive
Research by the Federal Highway Administration bears out McCarey’s argument — at least, as far as it goes.
In 2005, the agency released the first systematic national study of accident rates at intersections where cameras monitor red lights, compiling projections and hard data from seven cities from Maryland to California. The report tabulated 14.9 percent more rear-end crashes than would have been expected if the intersections had no cameras, resulting in 24 percent more injuries.
“Red light cameras don’t make intersections safer. They make them more dangerous,” McCarey said. Which is true — if all you’re worried about is rear-end crashes.
But the FHA study compiled numbers on all accidents at the relevant intersections, and it found that right-angle collisions — also known as “T-bone crashes,” when a car comes across the intersection and whacks you from the side — came in 24.6 percent below projections, with 15.7 percent fewer injuries.
This is where both sides acknowledge that you can make statistics say anything you want.
Opponents of cameras highlight rear-end crashes, noting that they make up more than 71 percent of accidents at intersections. Removing the cameras would lessen the most common kind of accidents.
But advocates point out that right-angle crashes are far more dangerous, causing 64 percent of the injuries at those intersections.
“We would prefer to have minor rear-end collisions, rather than broadside collisions, which lead to serious and fatal injuries,” said Art Acevedo, chief of the Austin, Texas, police.
Small reduction in injuries cited
What is clear in the study, when it is taken overall, is that red light cameras led to no real change in the number of accidents (4,059 with versus 4,063 without). But they did reduce the number of people hurt in those accidents, by just less than 5 percent (459 versus 482).
The FHA concluded that cameras provide, at best, a “modest aggregate crash-cost benefit.”
That benefit is so modest that the National Motorists Association has a standing offer of $10,000 to any community that can empirically prove that red light cameras can prevent violations and accidents better than a schedule of traffic engineering steps it recommends, which include proper signal timing, better signal design and improved intersection design.
Other opponents say that even if the cameras made driving far safer, that still doesn't justify what they call the systematic violation of drivers’ constitutional rights.
The American Civil Liberties Union joined a lawsuit brought by an Iowa man who received a $125 ticket in the mail after his vehicle was photographed doing 49 mph in a 35-mph zone in Davenport in March 2006.
The man, Thomas Seymour, argued that he was denied due process because he couldn’t confront his accuser — an inanimate camera. The Iowa Supreme Court agreed to hear the case last week.
Earlier this month, a California Superior Court judge dismissed 250 tickets issued under San Diego’s camera program, which is administered by Lockheed Martin Corp. under a private contract. Because the evidence is not gathered by an official police agency, it is “unreliable” and “untrustworthy” and therefore inadmissible in court, the judge ruled.
In a separate class-action lawsuit, four groups of plaintiffs argue that Lockheed Martin had an illegal incentive to design a system that would catch as many drivers as possible, because it collected $70 from each $271 ticket.
Opponents contend that that is what is really at the heart of debates over red light cameras — profits. Some government officials, like those in Dallas, don’t dispute that.
In Springfield, Mo., officials wanted to begin ticketing motorists caught on red light cameras last June 1. But the state Legislature was considering a law that would have diverted some of the revenue to state programs.
So Springfield officials postponed issuing the tickets. Only after it became clear a few weeks later that the Legislature would not act on the bill did Springfield start sending out tickets, NBC affiliate KYTV reported. The cameras began breaking even in January.
“It’s all about the money, and it’s not just about the $100 fine,” said McCarey of the National Motorists Association. “It’s millions for the city and billions for insurers.”
NBC affiliates KRIS of Corpus Christi, Texas; KPRC of Houston; KSHB of Kansas City; KSDK of St. Louis; KSND of San Diego; KYTV of Springfield, Mo.; KXAN of Austin, Texas; KXAS of Dallas; WCAU of Philadelphia; WHO of Iowa City; WMAQ of Chicago; and WNCN of Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.