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Have red light cameras reached the end of the road?

Red light cameras

Red light cameras were originally created for safety and revenue purposes.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has announced at least 9,000 drivers will get a second chance to appeal $100 tickets issued by red light cameras. The Mayor’s decision follows a Chicago Tribune report documenting periods where some cameras generated huge, sudden and completely inexplicable spikes in tickets.

For years, red light camera hatred grew almost as fast as the number of cities using them. Until around 2012, when the number of programs actually started to drop, according to data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The initial promise  safer streets and more city revenue  no longer seemed so promising.

Jeff Brandes, a Republican state senator from Florida, proposed a bill that would have put some limits on red light cameras there. Among other things, he was alarmed by media reports showing that after some local governments put in red light cameras, they also shortened the time for yellow lights

“Well, reducing yellow light timing has never been shown to be safer,” he says. “But it has been shown to generate a lot more red light camera revenue.”  

A state report he requested did show revenue going up year-by-year. His poster child was a mom who just missed a yellow light on a rainy day. He says no cop would’ve written her a ticket.

“You know, there’s a human factor to law enforcement,” says Brandes. “And we’re taking that out.”

Of course drivers hate the gotcha-every-time factor, says Joseph Schofer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering professor at Northwestern University. “From the perspective of the driver, you’ve really taken away my margin,” he says.  “I can’t push it a little bit and get away with it.”

Schofer also thinks there’s an upside, if cities want people to run fewer red lights, but he recognizes that the money creates a conflict of interest.

“If you’re doing this to make money, set up a tollbooth,” he says. “Then it becomes more transparent.  We know what you’re doing.”

There’s also a question about how well the cameras work. Some studies have shown that when red light cameras go in, rear-end crashes go up.

However, researchers who favor red light cameras have an answer for that one. Anne McCartt is Senior Vice President for Research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. She cites a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

“While rear-end crashes went up, the more serious right-angle crashes went down by a greater extent,” she says. “So there was an overall net safety benefit.”

The Florida study that Jeff Brandes requested showed the same thing. And fewer T-bone crashes generally means fewer deaths.

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.

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