Red Light Cameras Save Lives

Photo by  Ken Payravi

Photo by Ken Payravi

Let me just be clear: I hate red light cameras. Not for the reasons you probably may assume (receiving tickets) but because I find them to be a lazy and obnoxiously intrusive way to deal with bad street design. That being said, last week in a series of articles I came really close to sounding like I was endorsing red light cameras and their traffic Stasi equivalent. I was not.

Let me quote me:

...if everyone driving on a street with a tail light out or some other minor infraction were to receive an automated ticket -- including the Lexus along with the rusty Dodge -- that law would quickly be changed. We'll tolerate red light cameras when they catch tourists and those passing through, and we'll tolerate routine traffic stops when they happen in poor neighborhoods, but when our enforcement of traffic laws switches from random and discretionary to ubiquitous, the affluent will rid us of most of these nuisances. And for good reason.

That I would be so quickly affirmed in this is rather funny. Thanks to Founder's Circle member and frequent guest contributor Seth Zeren, I'm now aware of a CNBC article titled They may be annoying, but red light cameras save lives which details the findings of an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety report. From the article:

When red-light technology was first introduced in the early '90s, many cities added cameras at their busiest and most dangerous intersections. But drivers complained about being ticketed and said the cameras gave them anxiety. That anxiety, they argued, caused them to speed up to get through the intersection, or slam on the brakes to avoid getting a ticket.
Those complaints eventually prompted some cities to end their programs.

As an aside: I guarantee that if red light cameras were only used widely in poor neighborhoods -- like the investigatory stop -- the only anxiety that would be reported to cities would be the anxiety that people were driving like maniacs given all the red light violations. That's not a racial comment so much as it is a comment on how the American development approach has segregated us all by income and caused us to experience very different Americas. 

While I would never look to an insurance company to report anything more than conventional, self-serving dogma, the results of this study are interesting to share if only to make a larger point. Again, from CNBC:

In those cities that turned off their cameras, the rate of fatal crashes involving a driver who sped through a red light was 30 percent higher per capita than if the cameras had remained functional, according to the research. The overall fatal crash rate at signalized intersections in those cities was likewise 16 percent higher per capita.

There are many questions about sample size and the statistical validity of the study, but let's pretend this is totally true. Here's what we can conclude:

  1. The use of red light cameras saves lives.
  2. Affluent people -- those with the clout to have their complaints heard at city hall -- don't like red light cameras.
  3. Screw saving lives.

It should be pointed out that people killed at these intersections are mostly -- and this is also in the article -- pedestrians, those on bicycles and passengers. In other words, the driver is running little risk by running a light. The risk is asymmetrical, a statistically inevitable outcome.

The answer isn't to put the red light cameras back in. I question their constitutionality (as do others) and we don't want to give affluent people undo anxiety. The proper response here is to redesign these intersections to reduce the asymmetry of risk; to move most of the risk currently assumed by the walker or biker onto the driver. That's not the threat of a fine -- a very poor balance weighted against someone's life -- but something like the personal safety of the driver and the condition of their vehicle.

Tighten up the approach lanes. Create some edge friction. Open up the intersection to free flowing traffic. Reduce the amount of space where people outside of vehicles are in the same space as cars. Slow speeds way down. 

Red light cameras may save some lives, but slowing the cars to neighborhood speeds will save more. Slowing the cars will also cost less and increase the financial productivity of our cities. It's time to build strong towns.


(Top photo by Erik Jensen)

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