The red light runners think they've been wronged. They're convinced that the cameras documenting their violations are nothing more than a scheme to pick the pockets of motorists. The truth is simpler: Red light running kills, and red light cameras save lives. In fact, they saved 159 lives in 2004-08 in the 14 biggest U.S. cities with cameras, a new Institute analysis shows. If cameras had been operating during that period in all cities with populations of more than 200,000, a total of 815 fewer people would have died.
Camera opponents don't acknowledge the connection between those whose red light running sets off a benign flash and those who cause a deadly collision. Instead, they argue about "big brother" and equate fines for violations with taxes on drivers.
Not everyone who runs a red light is part of this group. No doubt, most violators calmly take their lumps, paying their tickets and vowing to be more careful. But a vocal minority get angry, and their outrage gets broadcast on the internet, magnified by the media, and channeled into campaigns to ban red light cameras on the local or state level. When officials try to assure the public that cameras are about safety, not revenue, they are all but drowned out by the protests of these aggrieved drivers.
"Somehow, the people who get tickets because they have broken the law have been cast as the victims," says Institute president Adrian Lund. "We rarely hear about the real victims — the people who are killed or injured by these lawbreakers."
People like Deborah Parsons-Mason, a California mother of 4 who was fatally hit by a red light runner while crossing the street near her home. Or Marcus May-Cook, who was sleeping in his car seat when a red light runner ended his life after only 3 years. Or Jacy Good, who was permanently disabled and lost both her parents in a red light running crash just hours after her college graduation. The Institute is highlighting their stories and others to bring the discussion back to the real victims.
Red light running killed 676 people and injured an estimated 113,000 in 2009. Nearly two-thirds of the deaths were people other than the red light running drivers — occupants of other vehicles, passengers in the red light runners' vehicles, bicyclists, or pedestrians.
Since the 1990s, communities have used red light cameras as a low-cost way to police intersections. The number of cities embracing the technology has swelled from just 25 in 2000 to about 500 today.
Without cameras, enforcement is difficult and often dangerous. In order to stop a red light runner, officers usually have to follow the vehicle through the red light, endangering themselves as well as other motorists and pedestrians.
Moreover, the manpower required to police intersections on a regular basis would make it prohibitively expensive. In contrast, camera programs can pay for themselves by requiring people who break the law to shoulder the cost of enforcing it.
"The cities that have the courage to use red light cameras despite the political backlash are saving lives," Lund says. "If they are able to recover some of their traffic enforcement costs at the same time, what's wrong with that?"
Previous research has established that red light cameras deter would-be violators and reduce crashes at intersections with signals. Institute studies of camera programs have found that red light violations fell at intersections where cameras were installed (see "Red light cameras deter red light running, win approval in California," March 7, 1998, "Camera use deters red light running in Virginia community," Dec. 5, 1998, and "Red light cameras in Philadelphia all but eliminate violations," Jan. 27, 2007). In two of those studies, researchers also looked at traffic lights without cameras and found the decrease in violations spilled over from the camera-equipped intersections. In Oxnard, Calif., injury crashes at intersections with traffic signals fell 29 percent citywide after automated enforcement began (see "Red light cameras yield big reductions in crashes and injuries," April 28, 2001).
The Institute's latest study provides powerful confirmation of the benefits of cameras, showing they reduce deaths throughout entire communities. Looking at U.S. cities with populations over 200,000, the researchers compared those with red light camera programs to those without. Because they wanted to see how the rate of fatal crashes changed after the introduction of cameras, they compared two periods, 2004-08 and 1992-96. Cities that had cameras during 1992-96 were excluded from the analysis, as were cities that had cameras for only part of the later study period.
Researchers found that in the 14 cities that had cameras during 2004-08, the combined per capita rate of fatal red light running crashes fell 35 percent, compared with 1992-96.
The rate also fell in the 48 cities without camera programs in either period, but only by 14 percent. The rate of fatal red light running crashes in cities with cameras in 2004-08 was 24 percent lower than it would have been without cameras. That adds up to 74 fewer fatal red light running crashes or, given the average number of fatalities per red light running crash, approximately 83 lives saved.
That's a substantial benefit, but the actual benefit is even bigger. Red light cameras also reduce fatal intersection crashes that aren't attributed to red light running. One possible reason for this is that red light running fatalities are undercounted due to a lack of witnesses to explain what happened in a crash. Drivers also may be more cautious in general when they know cameras are around.
The rate of all fatal crashes at intersections with signals — not just red light running crashes — fell 14 percent in the camera cities and crept up 2 percent in the noncamera cities. In the camera cities, there were 17 percent fewer fatal crashes per capita at intersections with signals in 2004-08 than would have been expected. That translates into 159 people who are alive because of those automated enforcement programs.
If red light cameras had been in place for all 5 years in all 99 U.S. cities with populations over 200,000, a total of 815 deaths could have been avoided.
"Examining a large group of cities over several years allowed us to take a close look at the most serious crashes, the ones that claim people's lives," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research and a co-author of the study. "Our analysis shows that red light cameras are making intersections safer."
Percent change in fatal crash rates in large cities with red light cameras, 2004-08 vs. 1992-96
Results in each of the 14 camera cities varied. The biggest drop in the rate of fatal red light running crashes came in Chandler, Ariz., where the decline was 79 percent. Two cities, Raleigh, N.C., and Bakersfield, Calif., experienced an increase.
"We don't know exactly why the data from Raleigh and Bakersfield didn't line up with what we found elsewhere," McCartt says. "Both cities have expanded geographically over the past two decades, and that probably has a lot to do with it."
A bigger mystery is why, in the face of mounting evidence that red light cameras make communities safer, some people continue to resist them. Rather than feeling angry at the sight of cameras going off, red light runners should thank their lucky stars they're alive to pay their tickets.