Debunking Myths About Red-Light Safety Cameras

Get the truth about how red-light cameras change dangerous driver behavior, reduce serious accidents and save lives. New law allows devices to protect law-abiding citizens from reckless drivers.

In July, Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law a measure (Act 84 of 2012) that allows several communities in Bucks, Delaware and Montgomery counties to consider the use of red-light safety cameras at dangerous intersections. Previously, only Philadelphia could use this technology in Pennsylvania.

More than 550 cities in the United States use red-light cameras, and they do so for a good reason. These devices change dangerous driver behavior, reduce serious accidents and save lives.

Yet, many residents and public officials still have questions about the technology. Often, people get wrapped up in the myths and it clouds the true safety benefits of red-light cameras. It’s important to collect and understand the hard evidence about how this technology promotes road safety.

* * * * *

MYTH: “Red-light cameras have no discernible effect on road safety.”

FACT: First installed in Philadelphia in 2005, red-light cameras have been at work there long enough to provide a clear statistical picture of their contribution to road safety. In short, people in Philadelphia are alive today because red-light cameras have helped to reduce the number of terrible, life-changing collisions. Right-angle traffic collisions have decreased 32 percent at intersections with red-light cameras in operation for at least three years, according to the Pennsylvania State Transportation Advisory Committee.

Need more? On Roosevelt Boulevard, which used to be known as the “kill zone” and frequently was included among lists of America’s most dangerous roadways, there hasn’t been a single fatality as a result of a T-bone crash or pedestrian strike since the city’s red-light camera program took effect.

Philadelphia’s experience with red-light cameras is not unique. An Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study showed that traffic cameras in 14 large cities saved 159 lives and cut the rate of fatal red light running crashes by 24% over a five-year period. According to Louisiana Crash Data Reports, the city’s fatal crash total decreased from 42 to 25 (40 percent) from 2009, when camera installation was completed, to 2010.

MYTH: “Red-light cameras don’t make people safe drivers.”

FACT: In Philadelphia, red-light running violations decreased 50 percent after 18 months of having cameras installed, which shows drivers are changing their behavior to abide by the rules of the road. Over 80 percent of the license plates identified in a red-light running violation have not been issued a second citation, indicating a high level of compliance and a low rate of recidivism. In all, 83 percent of drivers are one-time offenders.

Cities across the country are announcing similar results. In New Orleans, the Mayor’s office announced in March that the presence of cameras has reduced red-light running citations by 50 percent.

In a year to year comparison in Kansas City, red-light running citations decreased every month from August 2009 (when the camera system was deployed) through February 2012, according to the city’s police department. At the intersection with the most collisions before cameras were installed, crashes decreased from nine to zero in the first year after installation to one in the second year.

MYTH: “Red-light cameras face stiff opposition in communities where they are proposed.”

FACT: More than 550 cities in the United States use red-light cameras. This technology is endorsed by walking clubs, cyclists, public safety advocates, safe driving groups, senior advocates, law enforcement officials, medical professionals, emergency management services, downtown businesses, and other public and private ventures to improve road safety nationwide. These advocates understand the red-light cameras make our roads safer for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians alike.

MYTH: “Red-light cameras are all about generating revenue, not improving safety.”

FACT: Red-light camera programs are driven by safety, not money. In fact, Pennsylvania has two levels of protection for local governments and taxpayers to ensure red-light camera programs are completely violator funded.

First, the state’s new law allows local governments to recuperate operating costs for red-light programs. Once the costs are paid, any remaining revenue is sent to PennDOT for distribution among communities statewide. The money does not stay locally, so it’s incorrect to suggest red-light cameras are a revenue scheme for needy towns.

Second, red-light safety program contracts are designed so that in the event the revenue generated by the camera does not equal operational amounts, the municipality pays only what the camera generated, nothing more. These provisions ensure that Pennsylvania red-light camera programs are 100 percent violator funded and that vendors, not taxpayers, assume the risk.

MYTH: “Cameras are place in ways simply to catch drivers who run lights so fines can be collected.”

FACT: Red-light camera programs are completely transparent. Street signs alert motorists to intersections with cameras ahead so there is no “gotcha.” The contract is structured so there is no incentive to reach a set number of violations. Yellow-light timing is lawful. And all violation images are reviewed multiple times before going to police for final review and citation issuance.

MYTH: “Communities that install red-light cameras assume great financial risk.”

FACT: There is absolutely no financial risk to municipalities seeking ways to protect law-abiding citizens from reckless drivers. As noted above, municipalities pay only what the camera generated, nothing more. There are NO upfront costs to deploying red-light safety cameras. All pre-construction, construction, maintenance, training and processing costs are included in the monthly per camera fee. Local taxpayers are never at risk, but they receive all the benefits of safer roads.

MYTH: “Red-light cameras increase rear-end crashes.”

FACT: A popular assertion by those opposed to red-light cameras is that the technology increases rear-end crashes. However, locally, long-term studies of intersections in Philadelphia show there are fewer rear-end crashes today than there were even before cameras were installed. These results mirror findings in other communities where the cameras are used. For example, one Florida study found rear-end crashes decreased 57 percent in Orange County, 30 percent in Daytona Beach, 21 percent in Apopka and 15 percent in Orlando.

MYTH: “Yellow light timing is shortened to increase red-light camera tickets.”

FACT: All yellow light times must meet state and federal standards. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the average length of a yellow light in Pennsylvania is between three and five seconds. The timing is determined by a formula that includes the average speed of vehicles, the grade of the road approaching the light and perception reaction time. In other words, yellow light timing is regulated and not at the discretion of local officials.

MYTH: “Red-light cameras are an invasion that violates privacy laws.”

FACT: Local officials should be reassured that the courts have ruled conclusively on this issue. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came straight to the point in its 2009 ruling in Idris vs. the City of Chicago, saying: “No one has a fundamental right to run a red light or avoid being seen by a camera on a public street.” Those justices were standing on precedent. Two years earlier, in Agomo vs. Fenty, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals wrote: “Although cameras … created a privacy issue, those concerns were outweighed by the ‘legitimate concerns for safety on our public streets.’” Long before both rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court emphatically stated in its 1967 Katz vs. U.S. decision: “What a person knowingly exposes to the public even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection.”

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Pamela September 27, 2012 at 07:13 PM
Can you please site your source for these statisics? I would love to see what the stats are for rear end accidents from people slamming on their breaks to avoid that tix.
Liz Shockley September 28, 2012 at 01:36 AM
Kurt, I'm curious. I see you are an "issue advocate" in Harrisburg. Are red-light camera companies clients of yours or your company's?
Kurt Knaus October 04, 2012 at 05:45 PM
Hi, Liz. I’m the Pennsylvania field director for the National Coalition for Safer Roads, which studies and advocates for highway safety issues. After the red-light expansion passed, I approached Patch’s regional editors to make sure they knew about the new law, since so many southeastern Pennsylvania communities are affected. I presented them with information, and they suggested I share it online with their reading community, so I did, to meet the editors’ request. NCSR works with advocates and victims, and serves as a clearinghouse for information. I’ve been engaged with this issue long enough to know that some people find red-light cameras irritating, but research shows they might also really be keeping us safe.
Kurt Knaus October 04, 2012 at 05:49 PM
Hi, Pamela: Here’s PART 1 for you: Here’s a report from WFTV in Orlando, Fla., which combed through traffic records in five cities and found that since the installation of red light traffic cameras, central Florida crash data records reveal a drop of as much as 57% in rear-end crashes. SOURCE: http://www.wftv.com/videos/news/9-investigates-red-light-cameras-yellow-lights-and/vG47B/ A controlled before-and-after study conducted by the Cochrane Collaboration, an international public health organization, did not find a statistically significant change in rear-end injury crashes at intersections. This organization observed an estimated 13 to 29 percent reduction in all types of injury crashes, and a 24 percent reduction in right-angle car accidents. SOURCE: http://www.iihs.org/research/qanda/rlr.aspx
Kurt Knaus October 04, 2012 at 05:49 PM
And, Pamela: Here’s PART 2 for you: The Texas Transportation Institute reported (Page 47) that rear-end collisions occur when drivers follow the lead vehicle too closely or fail to control their speed, irrelevant of cameras, according to a study of 11,122 crash records from 275 intersections in Texas. SOURCE: http://tti.tamu.edu/documents/TTI-2011-4.pdf The Philadelphia Parking Authority Boulevard Report, Sept. 2011, states: “A popular assertion by those opposed to the implementation of RLPE is that the technology results in an increase in rear end type crashes. There does seem to be supporting evidence for that belief during the short term; however, an examination of data for intersections with RLPE +4 years indicates a substantial decrease in this type of crash. In fact, each of the RLPE intersections examined on Roosevelt Boulevard had fewer rear end type crashes during the 2010-2011 data period than had occurred prior to the implementation of RLPE.” SOURCE: http://articles.philly.com/2012-07-23/news/32805634_1_red-light-cameras-vince-fenerty-t-bone-crash and here: http://philapark.org/redlights/
Pamela October 04, 2012 at 05:52 PM
Might be keeping us safe....implies that there is not enough research to definitely say either way. I can see implementing them at certain intersections where there are a large amount of accidents. However to implement them at EVERY intersection would be a sign that the county is more concerned with generating income from them.
Pamela October 04, 2012 at 06:19 PM
I will state that the Parking Authority makes money off of the tickets that are issued. Their stats are slanted. According to the Philadelphia Police Department stats, there is an increase in accidents.I would much rather go by the men and women who have to respond to the call, then a bean counter. http://www.motorists.org/red-light-cameras/philadelphia-weekly
Kurt Knaus October 04, 2012 at 06:21 PM
You're right about camera placement. The law is written to prevent the simple installation of cameras in a haphazard approach. Any municipality considering a camera must have a traffic study of the proposed intersection, and that study must detail accident rates, not traffic volume. But even then, no red-light camera can be installed without the state Department of Transportation approving the location. It’s not the most exciting reading, but if you want more background, here is the new state law (Act 84): http://www.legis.state.pa.us/WU01/LI/LI/US/HTM/2012/0/0084..HTM.
Kurt Knaus October 04, 2012 at 06:28 PM
That story was written in 2005, shortly after the cameras went in, I believe. The Boulevard Report was completed in 2011, and looked at trends over 5 years, not just trends examining a few months after installations. You would find installing a stop sign at an intersection that didn't have one might give immediate rise, too, but a truer anaylsis is effect over time. Philly police endorse the cameras. (P.S. - I was raised by a cop. I always went by his word! :)
Pamela October 04, 2012 at 06:53 PM
Still looking for that Boulevard Report...What I did find was a more recent report from 2011.. http://articles.philly.com/2011-10-25/news/30320420_1_red-light-cameras-automated-red-light-enforcement-red-light-intersections I will believe police stats over PPA stats anyday. After all Philly PPA pulled in over $50M from their cameras. Why would they want to get rid a program that generates that kind of money? As for Warminster:Where are all the traffic studies that should have been conducted? I think they see $$$...
Linux Guy April 23, 2013 at 09:52 PM
Crashes went up in Philly, read the numbers. Please note that with proper engineering, there is no need for red-light cameras. If you set an 85th percentile free-flowing speed limit, extend the yellow duration, have a decent-length all-red interval, and use sensors to keep an all-red, the problems go away. Also, note that the National Motorists Association has a ticket challenge. If a municipality works with the NMA and the problems fail to cease, the municipality will be awarded $10,000 for improvements. Why is none of this being mentioned or investigated? It seems like for some reason it was decided these cameras would go in no matter what. Why?


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