Saturday, August 30, 2008

Are Red Light Cameras Safe?

Guest post from Jason Lancaster of

As a resident of a major city I couldn’t help but notice the installation of red-light cameras in some of the intersections in my neighborhood. If you’re not aware, a red light camera (abbreviated RLC) is designed to take a picture of every vehicle that runs a red light at a particular intersection. Using the photo, the offender’s license plate is identified and a hefty ticket is sent to the vehicle owner.

At first glance, the theory behind RLC’s seems solid. They serve as a deterrent to running a red light, and in so doing they reduce the likelihood of right-angle (aka T-Bone) crashes. Pedestrians benefit too – they’re less likely to be hit by someone charging a red light. RLCs seem like a no-brainer.

So why is it that a Federal Highway Administration study published in 2005 found that RLC’s did not effectively lower the number of crashes at their test intersections?

In the period before RLCs were installed, there were a total of 4,063 crashes reported in the test intersections. In the period after the RLCs were installed, there were 4,059 crashes. That’s a reduction of less than one-tenth of one percent. What gives?

While the number of right-angle crashes decreased by nearly 25% with the introduction of RLCs, the number of rear-end crashes increased 15%. Considering that rear-end crashes are much more common than right-angle crashes, the net effect was a “push.” The number of crashes was essentially the same with or without RLCs.

So what about injuries? Common sense would tell us that right-angle crashes are more dangerous than rear-end crashes. Again, the data says otherwise. 482 injuries pre-RLC, 459 injuries post. That’s a reduction of about 5%. Not bad, but that’s certainly not enough to prove that RLCs make anyone safer. Furthermore, it’s important to note that the most common rear-end crash injuries (whip-lash and back pain) often don’t manifest themselves for two or three days. It’s entirely possible that the number of reported rear-end crash injuries is low.

Bottom Line: The Federal Highway Administration found it difficult to recommend RLCs for every intersection, and for good reason. The studies have shown that RLCs have little impact on the total number of crashes at a particular intersection. Still, that hasn’t stopped cities from installing them. Perhaps the RLC ticket revenue is biggest reason for installing these cameras.

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