Stopping red-light cameras risks lives, IIHS says

Opinions vary regarding the wisdom of using cameras for traffic law enforcement.

In many parts of the country, surveillance cameras designed to catch people who run traffic lights have come under withering criticism, mounted by motorists who consider the programs to be money grabs and overly intrusive. As a result, some of these initiatives have come to an end.

But a newly released government study argues that putting the freeze on these campaigns may wind up doing more harm than good – quite literally.

Since 2014, red-light cameras have led to almost 1,300 fewer serious motor vehicle accidents, according to a recent report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. IIHS based its findings on 79 major metropolitan areas where the programs have been in place. As of July 2016, an estimated 430 communities have red-light cameras in states including Arizona, California, Delaware, Georgia, and Maryland among others.

Not only is failure to yield at a stop sign or intersection against the law, but it dramatically increases the risk of serious injuries or worse. In 2014 alone, for example, approximately 126,000 motorists were injured after motorists failed to apply the brakes at intersections, IIHS reported. Furthermore, 709 people died, most of them passengers that were in the other vehicles

"We know we have a problem," said Adrian Lund IIHS President at a recent forum held in Ruckersville, Virginia. "People [are] dying at signalized intersections because of people running red lights. We know red-light cameras are part of the solution."

Proponents, opponents at odds over issue

Opinions differ rather significantly on red-light safety cameras and whether they're worth it. Supporters argue that because there aren't enough police officers to enforce traffic laws, surveillance helps to fill in the gaps, fining motorists for breaking the law. Detractors, meanwhile, say that the cameras aren't foolproof, with cited drivers receiving fines when lights were still yellow or after coming to a stop on or slightly beyond designated stop lines on the road.

In several jurisdictions, critics have won their disputes. For instance, in Richardson, Texas – a suburb of Dallas – the city decided to suspend its red-light camera program after a district judge upheld a challenge from an area resident who disputed a fine he received for a moving violation. In a press release, legislators said the program would be shelved "until such time as the district court or an appeals court can provide clarification or a ruling on the legality of the red-light program." Surveillance cameras for traffic law enforcement purposes have been used in the Lone Star State since 2006, according to The Dallas Morning News.

Opponents of red-light cameras haven't had the same outcome in other parts of the U.S. In Florida, the Third District Court of Appeals ruled that they were, in fact, legal under state law, after an area resident argued otherwise.

"We were confident that when a court had the opportunity to review the full set of facts concerning red-light safety camera programs and the role that it plays, it would reach the conclusion outlined in [the decision]," said Rebecca Collins legal counsel for American Traffic Solutions, an advocate of surveillance traffic devices.

Accidents up where programs have ended

IIHS crunched the number recently, and found that in communities that have had the programs, fewer fatal accidents have occurred. After controlling for contributing factors, between 1992 and 2014, there were 21% fewer fatal red-light accidents per capita than would have happened were there no cameras installed. Over the same period in the cities that decommissioned the cameras, there were 30% more deadly incidents per capita than if the programs remained in place.

The debate over the somewhat controversial program will likely continue, but for the most part, traffic cameras are still fairly rare. Communities and cities in only seven states use automated enforcement procedures, according to IIHS' figures. More than half of the U.S. doesn't use the devices.