Red Light Cameras Part 1: Smile

This is a spy red light camera. It takes pictures of cars that run red lights. Take a good look, and start taking a look around.

Illinois’ state lawmakers voted in 2006 to allow the devices, and the move toward red-light cameras has been gaining momentum ever since.

At the June 17th council meeting, commissioners asked for preliminary information from staff about red light cameras. Commissioners cautioned that this was just a first look, just asking for information from staff, as if anticipating resident backlash.


Before red light cameras there are usually red light camera studies, to see if the red light cameras are needed. Would it surprise you that the results are usually yes, they are needed.

But by whom, and why?

What defines that need, safety or revenue, is a key to red light cameras. Government entities support red light cameras (RLC) since they were first deployed in California New York City in 1993. Four years later, in 1997 Oxnard, California installed automated enforcement technology, creating the automatic ticket and fine for the owner of the registered vehicle.

Many pro RLC supporters will refer to the U.S Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, or the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration for information supporting the use of cameras Most of that research into red light cameras invariably leads back to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Richard Retting. As author of many IIHS reports and studies, Retting is a senior transportation engineer for IIHS. He has even been called the “father of the red-light camera movement” in the United States. Most federal reports and information usually comes from this group, or from studies or reports funded by this group under other names. They testify at any and every hearing into RLCs that they are an imperative safety improvement. They maintain a large clearinghouse of reports and information touting the benefits of red light cameras, including the California Oxnard studies cited by Commissioner Schnell.

Noble cause to save lives? The IIHS is an organization financed and supported exclusively by the insurance industry. Thier data collection is subjective, and selective, exemplified by many things: collision data only between the crosswalks, and ignoring rear end collisions just in front of the intersection, where most occur is just one example. Their “facts” show red light cameras reduce the likelihood of side impact collisions from someone running a red light, but minimizes that they cause a rise in rear end collisionst that actually increases the number of accidents.

The FHWA’s own study not only uses IIHS’s Retting as a main sourcefor statistics, but intentionally narrowed the field down to data that supported their claim that spy cameras reduced collisions and injuries:

“It was vital to ensure that enough data were included to detect that the expected change in safety has appropriate statistical significance. To this end, extensive interviews were conducted for several potential jurisdictions known to have significant RLC programs and a sample size analysis was done. The final selection of seven jurisdictions was made after an assessment of each jurisdiction’s ability to provide the required data.”

Besides the IIHS’s Retting, the study also cites two Transportation Research Board papers. One, Multijurisdictional Safety Evaluation of Red Light Cameras concludes the increase in documented in-intersection (but not outside, before the intersection) rear collisions offsetting the right angle collisions makes the conclusions uncertain. The other, Implementing Red Light Camera Programs: Guidance from Economic Analysis of Safety Benefits, concludes that the most economic benefit is had when there are high traffic levels and a lot of right angle collisions (vs rear enders) already occurring at the intersection.

While I am at it, The National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running is an advocacy group sponsored by three red-light camera vendors; ACS, Redflex and Gatso USA, so you can safely assume everything they will find favors the product they sell.

While most of the underlying research supporting the use of RLC is from groups that would financially benefit from their use, most independent studies are finding the opposite: red light cameras cause more accidents.

All the way back in 1995, Melbourne Australia (along with Europe and especially the nanny state UK) was using RLC. The Australian Research Board did A long-term study of Red Light Cameras and Accidents, covering the five years before RLC and the five years after they were deployed, and found:

The results of this study suggest that the installation of the RLC at these sites did not provide any reduction in accidents, rather there has been increases in rear end and adjacent approaches accidents on a before and after basis and also by comparison with the changes in accidents at intersection signals.

The Washington Post did their own analytical study of Washington DC raw data in 2005 and found RLC increased collisions, which in turn raised insurance rates. From 1998 to 2004, the newspaper reported twice as many collisions at RLC equipped intersections. Injuries and fatalities from collisions went up 81%, and right angle collisions went up 30% at the intersections with RLC.

Two years later in 2007 the DC Metropolitan Police Department agreed that DC cameras don’t work right.

A comprehensive study conducted by the Virginia Department of Transportation, in it’s executive summary, concluded:

Further analysis indicated that the cameras are contributing to a definite increase in rear-end crashes, a possible decrease in angle crashes, a net decrease in injury crashes attributable to red light running, and an increase in total injury crashes.

To boot, the study showed that the main benefit was increased revenues via tickets, at the expense of higher collision rates and insurance premiums for drivers (aka taxpayers or residents).

In March of this year, the Florida Public Health Review published a multi-discipline review of RLC by the University of South Florida College of Public Health that concluded RLC increase accidents and injuries, and went so far as to state unequivically:

Finally, cities, counties, and the state should be very cautious in using traffic safety information from the automobile insurance industry. Insurance financial goals are to increase their revenues and profits, which do not necessarily include reducing traffic crashes, injuries or fatalities. Also, public policy should avoid conflicts of interest that enhance revenues for government and private interests at the risk of public safety.

The report and the authors were attacked for several reasons, and those attacks were conclusively responded to: if you don’t read any other background links, read this one.

Even Winnepeg Canada says RLC not only cause more accidents, they don’t raise the revenue promised.

Many North Carolina cities including Charlotte, Greensboro, High Point, and Greenville have also shut down their red-light camera system (even though most are still abandoned in place).

Seattle, touted as a place where RLC work, nabs $1.1 million in fines.

Most objections are summarized by the National Motorists Association. This is a website of questionable intent, but on Red Light Cameras they seem to have done their homework which, if you check their references, you will see. They point out most municipalities use registered owner model violations; they do not care who is driving, just that the car’s registered owner gets the ticket. So it becomes a matter of revenue first, not corrective enforcement. They also point out RLC is a bad solution used by municipalities eager to make revenue sharing deals with equipment suppliers to get RLC up and running in the village or city. The insurance industry writes them off as a bunch of fast driving nut cases, but never has factually refuted any of their claims.

The Weekly Standard, a conservative Republican leaning web site, published a five part report on RLC in 2002 that foreshadowed most of what has since come to pass:

In Part Two: What do RLC do?


14 Responses to “Red Light Cameras Part 1: Smile”

  1. Marge Says:

    They are at Fairview & Maple as well. Are these “trial” cameras? If the village didn’t put them up, who did?

  2. markthoman Says:

    And at 31st & Highland, and Burlington & Main. At this point, no mention has been made on the public record I am aware of as to their purpose or duration.

  3. Marge Says:

    The Fairview & Maple cameras have been there for quite a few months.

  4. Marge Says:

    The Fairview & Maple cameras have been there for quite a few months.

  5. John Schofield Says:

    Per a query I posed to the Village about a similar-looking camera at 59th and Main Streets, I was told that they were traffic sensing cameras replacing the electronic sensors in the pavement more economically.

  6. Ted Says:

    Maybe Downers is already being wired up for these. Big Brother is already watching.

  7. markthoman Says:

    From How Things Work:
    “One emerging trigger mechanism is the video loop. In this system, a computer analyzes a video feed from the intersection. As the computer receives each new video frame, it checks for substantial changes at specific points in the image. The computer is programmed to recognize the particular changes that indicate a car moving through the intersection. If the light is red and the computer recognizes this sort of change, it activates the still cameras. The main advantage of this system is you don’t have to dig up the road to install it, and you can adjust the trigger areas at any time. Essentially, it is a virtual inductive-loop trigger.”

    Beauty of this system is, hook it up to a computer, program it right and presto! Automated Traffic Enforcement, aka Red Light Cameras.

  8. Bob LeMay Says:

    As John Schofield notes above, the cameras at a number of intersections throughout the village were placed in the last few years as traffic signal controls, not “red light cameras”. I seem to recall reading about them when they first went in–they don’t require ripping up the street to put sensors under the street (like the ones that control many traffic signals).

    The red light cameras are usually boxes located lower on the signal poles, where they have a better view of license plates.

    I am not so paranoid to believe that municipalities are actively looking at red-light cameras as revenue producers, but are really trying to reduce the incidence of cars running red lights. With limited budgets for police (and fuel costs eating up that), we can’t station officers at every problem intersection. And you have to agree that drivers are no longer anticipating light changes, unless it is to speed up when the light turns yellow–or even red.

    I for one don’t fear either a ticket or a collision, as I pay attention to the distances of cars in front and behind me as I approach intersections, as well as how long the light has been green (when I can tell). I don’t jam on my brakes if the light changes yellow and I am too close to safely stop, but I will stop if the distance–to the intersection and to the car behind me–allows. Yes, I get honked at a few times from impatient people who felt that I should have gone through the light, but if I can stop, then obviously they could too!

  9. markthoman Says:

    I think the cameras would be different resolutions also. To catch a zippy speeder it would need a higher definition for detail, a fast refresh rate to prevent blurring, and good optics for clarity.

  10. Sideline Observer Says:

    There’s traffic control cameras mounted atop poles and lower. All types. I have pictures…

  11. • Red Light Camera: Resource Page « Guy Midkiff Says:

    […] Summary of RLC’s(*This is a must read) […]

  12. Temp Says:

    Just an FYI, the camera pics you have posted here are not red light cameras at all, they are red light “sensors”. Motion activated devices so the light knows your car is sittling at the red light. They tirgger the light to change and things like that. Red light cameras are posted at ground level.

  13. markthoman Says:

    Yep. #5 pointed that out too. The cameras in the picture have as much to do with RLC (nothing) as RLC have in reducing crashes and making intersections safer (nothing).

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