Red Light Cameras – Deterrence Not Dollars

Counties and municipalities feeling the recessionary pinch are once again seeking to close their fiscal gaps with revenue raised from drivers.
The New York State Legislature recently approved 50 red-light cameras to be erected at major intersections in Nassau and Suffolk counties, and 25 in the City of Yonkers. Red-light cameras are old hat to residents of New York City, which was the first municipality in the nation to adopt the idea. There, the legislature approved a plan to increase the number of cameras from 100 to 150 and City officials are pushing for more.

Running red lights is clearly dangerous conduct—causing 850 deaths and thousands of serious injuries every year in the United States. So, it’s not surprising that surveys show a high degree of public support for the expanded use of cameras to fine reckless motorists. But municipalities must remember that public support for the programs will remain only if the programs are fair and target deliberate red-light running, not drivers trapped by short “yellow” (amber) times.

Short “amber” times place motorists in a dangerous dilemma, by forcing them to choose between running the light or stopping short and possibly being rear-ended. The addition of red-light cameras has been blamed for an uptick in rear-end collisions in some communities where cameras already are in use. So, as local officials across the state deploy these new cameras, they must ensure that amber times are set in accordance with traffic engineering guidelines established by the Institute of Traffic Engineers. Also, officials need to conduct thorough “before” and “after” analyses of the cameras’ effect on intersection crashes to see if these cameras actually are beneficial in regard to safety.

Proper safeguards and measurement of the cameras’ safety impact is even more critically important in the current climate where municipalities feel pressure to increase revenue. After all, the true purpose of cameras is to reduce crashes by getting drivers to stop at red lights, so the best red-light-camera programs should produce little or no revenue at all.