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Status Report, Vol. 35, No. 3 | March 11, 2000 Subscribe

Officials nationwide give a green light to automated enforcement

For a long time there was resistance to using cameras to automatically identify vehicles driven by motorists who run red lights and drive a lot faster than the posted speed limits. Concerns about fairness, privacy, and "big brother" held sway. The resistance hasn't disappeared, but it's eroding.

"Red light cameras are the main type of automated enforcement that's gaining ground, and this is happening for a good reason," says Institute senior transportation engineer Richard Retting. "People understand deliberate red light running is a serious safety problem that can be addressed by cameras. Speed cameras aren't attracting the same support in the United States, at least not yet. But experience in a few places in this country and especially in Australia indicate that, if carefully deployed, speed cameras also can attract public support and reduce violations."

Red light cameras proliferate

The Institute has provided technical assistance on red light camera issues to more than 70 state and local governments. Ten years ago, no U.S. city or town used such cameras. As recently as five years ago, there was only one program. Today there are 37, and the roster is growing.

Such enforcement is needed because red light running is a leading cause of urban crashes (see "Classifying urban crashes is first step toward reducing them," Feb. 6, 1993). Institute research shows cameras can reduce red light running at intersections where the cameras are deployed and even at nearby intersections where they're not in use (see "Camera use deters red light running in Virginia community," Dec. 5, 1998).

Localities now using red light camera enforcement include Washington, D.C., where a 40-camera program has been launched (plans are afoot for speed cameras, too). Baltimore has 24 red light cameras and plans on doubling this number. Another 75 red light cameras — soon to grow to 200 — are being used elsewhere in Maryland.

New York City has 30 red light cameras now and will add 20 more. There are 20 such cameras in Charlotte, North Carolina, with programs planned in two other communities in the same state, Fayetteville and Matthews.

More than 10 California cities use red light cameras, including Beverly Hills, Culver City, El Cajon, Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco. Cameras are in Boulder and Fort Collins, Colorado, as well as Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe, and Paradise Valley, Arizona.

The Institute recently conducted random telephone surveys in 10 cities, 5 with red light cameras and 5 without. The cameras were supported by 80 percent of drivers in cities with red light cameras and by 76 percent elsewhere. Drivers in the five cities with camera enforcement perceive a greater risk of being ticketed for red light running than those in cities without cameras. Few respondents had actually been ticketed during the previous two years, but drivers in cities with cameras were more than twice as likely to know someone who had received a ticket.

"The real advantage of automated enforcement is this deterrent effect," Retting says. "We can't convince most motorists they might be in a crash, but with automated enforcement we can convince them they'll get a ticket if they break the law. The threat of a ticket, not the fear of a crash, is what prevents deliberate traffic violations."

Despite the growing deployment of red light cameras and public support for them, impediments still exist. One is the reluctance of officials in some places to implement programs without an explicit go-ahead from state legislators. For example, officials in several Virginia localities would like to install cameras but are waiting for the legislature to explicitly authorize new projects in areas beyond those permitted in 1995. "It's disappointing, frustrating," says Manassas Police Chief John Skinner. He formerly was police chief in Fairfax City, where a demonstration project was conducted, and strongly favors camera use.

Use of speed cameras far more limited

While red light camera use grows, speed cameras aren't following suit. They were installed in Paradise Valley, Arizona, in 1987 and Pasadena, California, in 1988. They've been in use for about four years in Portland and Beaverton, Oregon, and for about two years in Mesa and Tempe, Arizona. Cameras also are being used in Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins, Colorado, but they're nowhere near as common as red light cameras.

International use is wider — speed cameras have been used successfully in about 75 countries. The nearest example is in Canada, where researchers in British Columbia documented a decline in crashes, deaths, and injuries the first year cameras were used (see "Photo radar helps to lower speeds and reduce injury crashes," Dec. 5, 1998). British Columbia has the biggest program — 30 speed cameras rotated throughout the province — and such cameras are in use in several cities in Alberta. Speed cameras also are being used on one of the busiest roads in Europe, London's M25 (see "Who cares about a camera if you're not speeding?" June 19, 1999.

Cameras soon may be used to ticket speeders on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, a wooded four-lane drive outside Washington, D.C., that's under federal jurisdiction. Originally built for sightseeing, the parkway has served since the 1960s as a major commuter route for 56,000 motorists a day who frequently go 60 mph or more — 10 to 20 mph faster than posted limits.

When the Institute surveyed 1,000 drivers in 10 Virginia and Maryland communities near the parkway, the main question was whether motorists who regularly travel this route would support the proposed use of speed cameras. Overall, 57 percent said yes, and most said they "strongly" favor speed cameras. Drivers who indicated that speeding is a big problem were significantly more likely (65 percent) to strongly support camera enforcement than drivers who thought speeding was either "somewhat" of a problem (30 percent support for cameras) or not a problem (14 percent support). These findings mirror those of earlier Institute surveys (see "Where photo radar is used, majority of residents approve," Jan. 27, 1990).

Still, enthusiasm for speed cameras is less than for red light cameras, maybe because of a general wariness about overly aggressive traffic enforcement stemming from the image of "speed traps." To counter this, it's important to set cameras to photograph serious speed violators, not motorists going just a few miles per hour faster than the limit.

"The best camera locations are high-crash sites where speeding is a problem and in neighborhoods where local residents favor cameras to slow down through traffic — not on limited access high-speed roads where the cameras could be perceived as high-tech speed traps," Retting points out.

In Australia, for example, speed cameras are deployed where there's a pattern of serious crashes. Strategic planning expert Joseph P. Perone of Melbourne says "allegations of using speed cameras primarily as revenue raisers were certainly common in the early days, following the introduction of cameras in 1989, but their use is now widely regarded as an essential part of our road safety program."

The success of cameras to deter speeding is obvious from the amount of revenue raised in Australia. According to Perone, money from speeding tickets "plateaued some time ago even though the total number of hours of [camera] operation increased significantly. This reflects a much higher level of compliance with posted speed limits."

The red light cameras used for a demonstration project in Vienna, Virginia, have a unique safety feature. The video-based system predicts potential red light violations and triggers an emergency extension of the red light signal for crossing traffic to help prevent collisions. "Our system discourages red light running, helps prevent crashes when red light running does occur, and doesn't cost the law-abiding taxpayer anything," Police Chief Dan Boring says.

U.S. experience is mixed

In the United States, speed cameras are used successfully in Portland and Beaverton, Oregon, where they're placed exclusively in neighborhoods and school zones. State law prohibits such cameras on freeways.

But the situation is different in Colorado. The Denver Public Works Department acquired three speed cameras, intending to deploy them in neighborhoods with verified complaints of speeding. Instead, the police department put the cameras on interstates and freeways, arousing concern from state legislators. Now the city is required to post warnings about camera use, and fines are limited to $40 and no points. The whole issue has wound up in litigation.

"What we can learn from this is how and where to deploy speed cameras," Retting points out. "We've got to accept the widespread skepticism about the cameras and avoid deploying them where they could be construed mainly as a way to help fill revenue coffers. Using speed cameras at high-crash locations and evaluating camera use carefully to see if it reduces crashes — then publicizing the results — could do a lot to boost the image of speed cameras as an effective supplement to police enforcement."

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