Red light camera programs are gaining popularity across the country. Put simply, traffic light cameras are designed to reduce crashes associated with running red lights. In fact, studies have shown that red light cameras at intersections with traffic lights can reduce crashes that cause injuries by up to 29 percent.1

Wen Hu, a senior research transportation engineer for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), says drivers generally tend to change their behavior when they are aware of red light cameras, paying more attention to traffic signals and the road environment.

Understanding why red light crashes are an alarming problem and how traffic light cameras can help improve safety is just as important as obeying the rules of the road.

Rationale for red light cameras

Though 93 percent of drivers say it’s unacceptable to run a red light, 43 percent did so in the last 30 days.1 Every time someone runs a red light, it jeopardizes the safety of others. In fact, accidents involving red light runs in 2017 were fatal for 890 people and injured about 132,000 others.1

These statistics are part of the reason policymakers and government officials are pushing for red light cameras. As of 2018, only 421 communities across the country had red light camera programs.2

Though the public typically supports traffic light camera programs that are run well, support usually dwindles when communities use the technology to generate revenue rather than prioritize safety.2

“A community that is running a red light program should always focus on the safety aspect of the red light camera programs, and revenue generated by the red light camera programs should be allocated toward traffic-safety programs to the extent feasible,” says Hu.

What red light cameras do

Red light cameras are connected to traffic signals and sensors that monitor traffic. When a driver goes through a red light, the camera photographs the vehicle. Police officers or trained employees review the footage to verify the violation and collect vehicle information.1

If the driver did in fact run the red light, they are ticketed. If you find yourself on the wrong side of the camera, you can appeal the ticket if your car was stolen or if you moved into the intersection so an emergency vehicle could pass.1

How red light cameras improve safety

Red light cameras improve driving safety in a few essential ways. Here are results some states have seen:1

  • 40 percent reduction in red light violation rates in Virginia and California over several months after the implementation of a red light camera program
  • 21 percent reduction in fatal red-light-running crashes in large cities over several years after the implementation of a red light camera program

The results vary depending on the city and other factors. For example, Chicago has one of the largest red light camera programs in the country. A study from the Chicago Department of Transportation found red light cameras reduce certain crashes but increase others:3

  • 19 percent reduction in angle-and-turn crashes over a one-year period
  • 14 percent increase in rear-end crashes over a one-year period

Still, the study found an overall crash reduction of 10 percent where programs are in force, plus a decreasing trend of violations over time as drivers adjust to the program.3 A different study found that 59 camera sites in New Orleans had 21 percent fewer crashes than they would without them.4

Hu says IIHS research examining large U.S. cities with red light camera programs found significant reductions in citywide fatal red light crash rates (and fatal crash rates of all types) at intersections with traffic signals, including intersections that did not have a camera. Hu explains that because drivers tend to change their behavior when they know they are being monitored, they are more careful at all intersections, even those without cameras.

Cities that discontinue their programs tend to feel the sting. The fatal crash rate was 30 percent higher in cities that shuttered their red light camera programs.2

Following the rules the road

To help make roads safer, start by being a defensive and cautious driver. That means:5

  • Don’t be distracted – put down your phone and focus on the road.
  • Leave plenty of space between your car and the vehicle ahead of you.
  • Follow the speed limit.
  • Slow down at yellow lights – never speed up to rush through them.

Additionally, you can voice your support for your community’s red light camera program (or your desire for one) at your city’s next town hall meeting.

Hu says transparency is key to a successful red light camera program. “The community should always publicize any change to the program, including new camera locations. The important part is to bring the public in and take them along the entire process.”

Red light camera programs don’t have to be an adversarial presence in your community. Think of them as an incentive for fellow drivers to prioritize the safety of others.

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