Hate red light cameras? You’re not alone. In February of this year, Colorado’s legislature considered the fourth bill in a decade that would have repealed the rights of local jurisdictions to use automated vehicle identification systems, including red-light cameras. The bill’s sponsors argued the cameras erode civil liberties, do nothing to promote public safety, and amount to little more than a source of revenue for cities. That argument proved unpersuasive; the bill was postponed indefinitely. Still, as technology makes it increasingly possible for drivers to be monitored and ticketed remotely, the issue of “robo cop” law enforcement is not going to go away.
So let us consider the reason red-light cameras exist in the first place. Red-light running causes accidents. Bad ones. According to a new study from AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety, red-light crashes killed 939 people in 2017, a 28 percent increase since 2012. Cities justify red-light cameras as a way to decrease these kind of crashes and increase public safety.
But in real life, results are mixed. Numerous studies have shown that side-impact wrecks, the kind of accident with the highest number of injuries, do decrease at intersections with red-light cameras. When the cameras were removed, as they have been in Houston, Cleveland, and elsewhere, side-impact collisions increased once more. However, rear-end collisions tend to increase at intersections with red-light cameras because people slam on their brakes to avoid a ticket, or speed to get through a yellow light. And then there are the tickets. Lots of them. A red-light ticket may be negligible for a person of means, but for a poor person it can be devastating.
So yes, red-light cameras do prevent red-light running. But at a cost.
Is there a better way?
In a recent debate about adding cameras to three more Denver intersections, Councilman Kevin Flynn posed an intriguing question: Do Denver’s yellow traffic lights provide enough time for drivers to stop safely? To answer, Flynn and his wife stood at the three intersections in question, stopwatches in hand. “What we found was the yellow time was insufficient to allow prudent drivers, safe drivers, sufficient time to safely come to a stop,” Flynn says. “We want people to stop from the speed they are going, not at the speed we wish they were going.”
He makes a good point. The length of yellow lights is somewhat random and difficult for drivers to predict. Although the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices suggests a formula for yellow light duration based on speed and road grade, cities are not mandated to use it. Variable yellows combined with red light cameras force drivers into a sudden, stressful decision– Can I make it through the light in time to avoid a fine? Many drivers, when placed in this situation, make an unsafe choice.
Are Longer Yellow Lights the Answer?
A recent study in Loma Linda, California suggests longer yellows may be a surprisingly simple fix. The city added one second of time to the yellow light at a high-conflict intersection and reduced the number of tickets per month from 250 to six. Denver is now conducting its own yellow light study to see if Loma Linda’s solution would work here. After all, the point of red-light cameras is to prevent accidents caused by dangerous drivers, not generate tickets. Right?
Here’s hoping, Denver. In the meantime, remember. Red means stop. Yellow means slow down. Green means pause and make sure the other guy is following the rules, too.
Article by Molly Fuscher