February 22, 2005

Red-light cameras may not be the solution

Toronto, Ontario – A spokesman for the National Motorists Association, an American advocacy group, says cameras that snap pictures of drivers running red lights are not the solution to the problem.

“Red-light cameras just reward cities for bad engineering,” said Eric Skrum. There are no statistics on how many cameras are in use across the United States, but one recent study showed that they are currently used in more than a dozen states, in more than 70 cities. Proponents say they make roads safer by deterring red-light runners, but detractors say that dangerous intersections are the result of poor engineering and the cameras simply increase revenue.

The NMA contends that the best solution is engineering improvements, such as longer yellow lights and signal shields that prevent glare and make the lights more visible as the sun sets. The group points to studies of red-light cameras that show that while there is generally a decrease in side-impact collisions, there is an increase in rear-end collisions, as drivers slam on their brakes to avoid running a red light.

But Robert Sinclair, spokesman for the Automobile Association of America’s New York office, argues that this justifies the cameras. “The nature of the collision that takes place when someone runs a red light is a very dangerous one, the so-called ‘T-bone’,” he said. “The weakest part of a vehicle is its side. So someone runs a red light and smashes into the side of a vehicle, and lots of bad things can happen.”

Skrum argues that cameras are not the only solution. “Most drivers don’t want to run red lights, but due to engineering flaws at some intersections, they sometimes have no choice. By increasing the length of yellow lights, you can cut down on the amount of violations and accidents at an intersection.”

A study released in January by the Texas Transportation Institute concluded that extending a yellow light by 1.5 seconds would decrease red-light running by at least 50 per cent. The institute also found that intersections equipped with red-light cameras saw a 40 per cent decrease in violations on average, and promoted a “halo effect”, where nearby intersections also saw a drop in violations.

But in some cash-strapped communities, shorter yellow lights at intersections with red-light cameras created more tickets. “We’ve seen ambers as short as a second in those areas where they might be wanting to, let’s say, enhance revenue,” Skrum said. “There needs to be a national standard for the length of amber lights.”

The NMA says that towns and cities that want red-light cameras disregard studies that question the cameras’ effectiveness, and instead use studies quoted by groups like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is supported by many of the country’s insurance providers. Skrum argues that insurance companies have a vested interest. “More cameras means more tickets being issued, and then they can raise the drivers’ insurance rates.”

The companies that manufacture, install and maintain the cameras generally make their profit from a portion of the ticket revenue the devices generate. Skrum says that anything that might cause a decrease in tickets will affect profits for the camera manufacturers, insurance companies and local municipalities. “In many instances, engineering is being ignored because it’s easier to put up a camera,” Skrum said. “It’s more lucrative to put up a camera.”

The NMA offers a cash prize for proof that dangerous intersections can’t be improved through engineering, and will bring in its own engineer to study any camera-equipped intersection and make recommendations on how the intersection could be made safer through improved engineering.

The group says that if its recommendations are implemented in place of the camera, and the intersection does not see at least a 50 per cent decline in red-light violations, the NMA will donate $10,000 toward road safety or a road improvement program of that community’s choosing. So far, no one has taken the challenge.

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