NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 18, 2010

Critics have long contended that traffic light cameras do not increase motorist safety so much as generate revenue for local and state governments, says Radley Balko, a senior editor at Reason Magazine and 

For example: 

  • A 2008 Florida Public Health Review published a research paper that concluded the cameras actually increase crashes and injuries, providing a safety argument not to install them; in particular, there has been a dramatic increase in rear-end collisions, suggesting that people are slamming on their brakes to avoid a ticket.
  • A 2005 Washington Post report found that after the city installed its traffic light cameras, collisions at the camera-equipped intersections went up rather than down; however, the cameras brought the city $32 million in revenue, so rather than halting the program, the city chose to expand it.  

A number of researchers have shown that lengthening yellow lights at crash-prone intersections is much more effective at preventing collisions than issuing automated citations.  However, lengthening yellow lights does not add cash to city coffers, so few jurisdictions have considered it, says Balko. 

There are still more disturbing reports: 

  • According to The Newspaper, a website that covers motoring issues, at least six cities have been caught shortening yellow lights after installing cameras at intersections
  • In many cities, the companies that manufacture the cameras get a cut of each fine, creating some perverse incentives when it comes to weighing safety and revenue.
  • Some jurisdictions even let the companies choose where the cameras are located.
  • Until media reports and citizen complaints prompted a change in the law, motorists in Washington, D.C., who wanted to challenge an automated ticket had their claims heard not by a government court but by the same company that received a percentage of every fine collected.  

As of December, 15 states and nine cities had banned automated citation cameras.  Whether those bans hold up under tightening budgets remains to be seen, says Balko. 

Source: Radley Balko, "Red Light Districts: Revenue vs. Safety," Reason Magazine, June 2010. 

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