Safety of traffic-light cameras
By Jonathan Miller
On a perfectly clear day in October, Carla Correa drove
her Honda Civic toward an intersection in Baltimore. When
the light turned yellow, she did not cruise through. She
hit the brakes.
Seconds later, a truck rammed her from behind, and her
car was wrecked.
Why would she do such a thing? The answer could be found
in a box mounted on a nearby post, with a lens pointed at
her license plate.
"It's an intersection that I've been through a million
times before, and I knew that it was a quick yellow light,"
Correa, a confessed neurotic when it comes to getting a
ticket, said in a telephone interview.
Correa, 25, also knew that the intersection was equipped
with a camera. "And when I saw the yellow, I freaked
Though unhurt, Correa has made a resolution: from now on,
if it seems the light is about to turn red, she is going
to run it. "If I hadn't known there was a red-light
camera there, I would have gone through," she said.
"Every time I see the red-light camera, I'm terrified
by it. It's a...ticket." And that ticket would cost
Her experience is not an anomaly. Cameras like the one
she spotted are now in use in more than 100 American cities.
Activated by road sensors when a car enters an intersection
belatedly, the systems provide evidence of a violation,
including photos of the license plate and in some cases,
While Baltimore reports that violations for running red
lights have gone down 60 percent at the 47 intersections
with such cameras, several studies in recent years--in places
like San Diego, Charlotte, N.C., and Australia--have offered
a fuzzier picture. The studies have shown that the reduction
in side-angle collisions at the intersections has been wholly
or largely offset by an increase in rear-end accidents like
In addition, there has been criticism of the cameras' use
to generate revenue from fines--in some cases exceeding
$300 per violation, with points on a driver's record--and
of revenue-sharing arrangements with providers of the technology.
Those arrangements, critics contend, have led to the placement
of cameras not necessarily where they would best promote
safety, but where they will rack up the most violations.
Those questions, along with malfunctions and legal challenges,
have led some local governments to remove the cameras. Virginia's
legislature is considering whether to renew a law, expiring
in July, that permits the cameras, used in six Virginia
Despite the problems, many cities, including Philadelphia
and Cincinnati, are moving forward in installing automated
red-light cameras. Many others couldn't be happier with
the technology. "We think it's doing a wonderful job,"
said Steve Galgano, executive director for engineering in
the traffic division of the Department of Transportation
in New York City, where 50 such cameras are in operation--along
with 200 decoys--at periodically changing locations.
The story of the red-light camera is one of technology,
safety, politics, behavior modification--and unintended
Some contend that revenue has trumped safety.
"I disapprove of the privatization of a police function,"
said Mark Kleinschmidt, a city councilman in Chapel Hill,
N.C., where a private contractor not only installed the
camera system but also carried out the initial screening
of potential violations. Last year, Kleinschmidt persuaded
a slim majority of his colleagues to end the program after
"I don't think we should bid it out to a corporation;
it's strictly a police function," he said. "Then
there's this distaste in the minds of many, that the whole
concept is a corporate moneymaking scheme."
For their part, camera-equipped cities and the private
companies that contract with them dismiss such claims, saying
the cameras have reduced violations. The largest provider
in the country, Affiliated Computer Services, has 55 clients
in the United States and Canada, including San Diego and
Washington, D.C. It provides camera systems and in some
cases administers the processing of citations. The cameras
first made their appearance in Europe and Australia in the
1970s, but came to the United States only in 1993, when,
with little fanfare or warning, New York City started installing
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,
which endorses the camera systems' use, 1,000 people are
killed each year in red-light violations. Advocates of the
cameras have championed them as effective tools in reducing
accidents and deaths, freeing officers to perform other
crime-fighting duties, and as an efficient way to raise
revenue in the process.
When Mayor Anthony Williams of Washington, D.C., acknowledged
that twofold aim in 2002--"The cameras are about safety
and revenue," he said--his comments outraged AAA, which
withdrew its support for the camera program there. About
120 cities in 18 states and the District of Columbia now
use the cameras, according to statistics from the Insurance
Institute for Highway Safety, an enthusiastic backer of
the cameras that receives all of its financing from insurers.
"We've been able to document clearly that red-light
running is a problem," said Richard Retting, a senior
transportation engineer at the institute and an author of
several studies on the subject. The cameras "are very
effective tools for enhancing safety consistently,"
he said, adding: "Drivers know what to expect. They
know if they break a law, there'll be a consequence."
That consequence is a ticket in the mail. Here is the chain
of events before that happens: In most cases, a magnetic
coil is embedded in the pavement just before an intersection.
When the light turns red, this activates the coil, which
helps the system record any vehicle that rolls over the
coil, and its speed. A photo is snapped of the license plate,
sometimes from both the front and the back. (In California
the driver's face is photographed.) Then the company or
local officials, or both, review the image, and the ticket
is sent out.
Officials at Affiliated Computer Services say they are
developing laser technology that would be aimed at cars.
If effective, it could replace the coil system. A pilot
program in several cities will be introduced in the next
few months, but officials declined to name the cities.
Some drivers have escalated the technological arms race
by using simple sprays and shields that they believe obscure
the license plates when photographed. The sprays, called
Photoblocker, cost $20 to $30. The drivers who swear by
them claim that they have run red lights and not received
tickets. Officials at Affiliated say that studies conducted
by the company show the sprays to be ineffective. Nonetheless,
many states, like Maryland, now specifically outlaw the
use of them.
The resistance to the cameras is not just at the individual
Organizations like the National Motorists Association, a
drivers' advocacy group based in Wisconsin, denounce the
use of cameras. "It violates due process," said
Greg Mauz, a truck driver from Florida and researcher for
the association, "because it assumes you're guilty
until proven innocent." Roger Hedgecock, a former mayor
of San Diego who is now a radio talk show host there, called
the cameras an old-fashioned shakedown.
In a court case that resulted in the dismissal of nearly
300 tickets in 2001, a former employee testified that Lockheed
Martin IMS, which operated the San Diego system, regularly
scouted intersections in some cities based on high traffic
volume, not locations that were most accident-prone. Documents
revealed that officials sought locations with steep gradients
and short yellow-light times.
A California Department of Transportation auditor's report
in 2002 concluded that the yellow-light duration at two
camera-equipped intersections in San Diego had been shortened,
but said this had been a mistake. Thousands of drivers were
ticketed, though a handful won dismissals. The city's camera
program was suspended in 2001, but has since resumed.
Today, officials at Affiliated Computer Services, which
purchased Lockheed Martin IMS in August 2001 for $825 million,
acknowledge the past troubles in San Diego. "It was
a breakdown in communication with us--the vendor--and the
department of transportation," said Maurice Hannigan,
a vice president at the company.
To reverse some of the ill will, the company says it has
restructured its contracts with cities to avoid any perception
that it would benefit from maximizing the number of citations.
Instead of receiving a share of the fines, Hannigan said,
the company is now typically paid a flat monthly fee.
Even when the fines go solely to the public coffers, the
tickets can be costly. In Sacramento, the maximum penalty
for running a red light is $351. Those numbers add up. Even
in Washington, D.C., where the fine is $75, the city has
collected $28.9 million since installing the cameras in
1999, according to the city's Web site. (In some jurisdictions,
violators also have points added to their record, which
can increase their insurance rates.)
Until recently, findings on the effectiveness of cameras
have been mixed at best. One of the most-cited studies,
performed by Retting of the Insurance Institute for Highway
Safety, found that crashes decreased at all intersections
in Oxnard, Calif., by 5.4 percent after cameras were installed
at some locations. Retting did not look specifically at
intersections with the cameras, arguing that a spillover
effect from the camera intersections would affect the data
at all intersections.
Studies elsewhere, however, made a striking finding: Rear-end
accidents have shot up at intersections with cameras. In
2002 a consultant's study in San Diego reported that the
number of crashes at camera intersections had increased
by 3 percent after the cameras were installed, almost all
of it a result of a 37 percent increase in rear-endings.
"This finding is not consistent with the program's
overall objective of improving traffic safety," the
report's authors concluded.
But studies to be presented at a transportation conference
next week in Washington, D.C., by two researchers, Forrest
Council and Bhagwant Persaud, reach a more nuanced conclusion.
They found that rear-endings had gone up nearly 15 percent
after cameras were installed in seven cities, with injuries
from such accidents up 24 percent. Right-angle crashes declined
by 24 percent, with injuries down nearly 16 percent. Weighing
the economic impact and severity of injuries, they found
the overall effect positive.
Or as Hannigan of Affiliated put it: "Would you rather
have someone coming at you at 40 miles an hour, going through
your window, or rear-ending you at 10?"
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