Your Red Light Camera Questions Answered
It turns out that short yellow lights and snitch tickets aren’t the only things about red light camera systems that are a little less than straightforward - very few of the other questions we wondered about had the simple answers we expected!
Where do I need to watch out for red light cameras?
There’s no official list of all the communities in the United States that have red light cameras. In 2011, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) estimated about 553 communities had them, while the U.S. Public Interest Research Group reported that the real number was probably more like 700, based on contract lists provided to researchers by camera operators Redflex and American Traffic Solutions. Today, the IIHS estimate has fallen to 502 communities in 24 states.
PhotoEnforced.com maintains a mapped database of specific intersections across the country that have red light cameras or speed cameras, and locations where cameras have now been removed. It’s based on user-provided information, so keep in mind that it may not be completely up to date. If you know of a camera that’s not listed, you can consider submitting it to the database.
You may sometimes see small cameras placed on traffic signal poles - these are probably just traffic surveillance cameras. Red light cameras are large and boxy, positioned 10-15 feet off the ground at the side of the road. Check out photos of each at the PhotoEnforced.com blog.
Do red light cameras really make intersections safer?
In a word… Maybe.
In the world of traffic safety research, red light cameras are a hotly contested topic. While plenty of studies have been done, many have found contradictory results. In reviews of each other’s studies, researchers point out methodological flaws and possible influence by the insurance industry. As a result, it’s hard to know whose findings to trust.
The best resource we found was the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Automated Enforcement: A Compendium of Worldwide Evaluations of Results, which established design and data standards for the many studies it reviewed.
Of the seven studies that met these standards, most found that installing red light cameras caused a decrease in right angle crashes - the kind usually caused by red light running - and an increase in rear-end crashes.
These studies advised that red light cameras can only improve safety if the crashes they prevent are more severe than the rear-end crashes they cause. Unfortunately, crash severity is still hard to measure - there isn’t a standardized scale for reporting it, and some studies don’t even address it.
Other factors that researchers must account for are:
- Crash severity. Red light cameras can only improve safety if the crashes they prevent are more severe than the rear-end crashes they cause. Unfortunately, crash severity is still hard to measure - there isn’t a standardized scale for reporting it, and some studies don’t even address it.
- Changes in traffic volume at the intersection. Drivers may change routes to avoid an intersection where cameras have been installed, and the decreased number of cars may contribute to reductions in accidents.
- Differences in crash reporting thresholds, or the level of damage or injury at which the state requires crashes to be reported to the police or DMV.
- Law enforcement efforts and public awareness campaigns that may be taking place at the same time.
Why do cities install cameras in the first place, and why do they get rid of them?
Many cities install red light cameras to monitor intersections efficiently and without risk to officers, with the goal of reducing crashes caused by red light running. The federal government does recommend cameras as the very last step in a long list of other safety improvements, including traditional enforcement and education along with engineering improvements like signal timing and visibility improvements.
But critics say that contracting with a private company to take over this aspect of law enforcement can put the focus too much on profit at the expense of public safety. As described in a report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, contracts with private red light camera companies can end up being a raw deal:
- Some cities end up losing money. This was the case in Los Angeles, which let its camera contract expire in 2011 after an audit revealed that the red light camera system had cost the city $2.5 million over the previous two years.
- Tickets issued may not be justified. Chicago has not yet removed its red light cameras, but public opinion appears to be leaning in that direction after it was reported that thousands of questionable tickets have been issued in dozens of sudden camera ticketing spikes since 2007. It’s not yet clear whether the issues were caused by malfunctioning equipment, human intervention, or both. Chicago has already switched vendors following the news that Redflex had bribed Chicago city officials to win the city’s red light camera contract in the first place. The city is planning to review 16,000 potentially erroneous tickets.
- Contracts can penalize cities for failing to approve a sufficient number of tickets generated by the system, limiting officer discretion and effectively setting a ticket quota.
- Contracts can prevent cities from lengthening yellow light signal times, which has been shown to decrease red light running violations and crash rates.
- Ditching a red light camera contract may be easier said than done. Some include penalties for early termination, or fail to provide for early termination at all, even if the red light camera programs fail to meet their safety goals. Because of this, some cities are simply waiting until their contracts expire.
Have any states banned red light cameras?
Yes. So far, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, South Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wisconsin have all banned red light cameras entirely.
Arkansas and Nevada have laws against red light cameras, but include narrow exceptions allowing them to be used under certain circumstances with direct law enforcement oversight.
South Dakota has gone even further by passing a law preventing its Department of Motor Vehicles from providing vehicle registration records to other states, if the information would be used to impose a civil fine for a red light camera violation. To accomplish this, the South Dakota DMV is blocking all requests made by red light camera companies via the interstate data sharing system used to obtain registered owner information from license plate numbers. However, local law enforcement agencies can still make those requests, and the law doesn’t get South Dakota residents out of paying tickets once they’ve been issued. It remains to be seen whether the law will be challenged in court.
New Jersey introduced a similar bill this summer, and its pilot red light camera program is set to expire this December if no further action is taken.
What should I do if I know there’s a red light camera at an intersection?
Red light cameras definitely change the decisions we make - even if it’s not clear whether those changes make intersections safer! It’s worth thinking in advance about how to react when you do encounter a camera.
Be prepared to make your decision and control your speed as you approach the intersection. Driving close to the speed limit will help you take advantage of how the signal is timed and give you an opportunity to stop safely without the need to panic and stop suddenly.
Make sure to also leave plenty of space in front of your car in case the driver ahead of you slams on the brakes!