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Status Report, Vol. 47, No. 9 | November 20, 2012 Subscribe

Research suggests guidelines for credible camera enforcement

Automated enforcement can improve safety by cutting down on red light running and speeding, but controversy surrounding the technology has hindered some programs. A new report provides guidance on how to set up and operate camera programs to make them both effective and less likely to come in for criticism. A separate review of Australian camera programs highlights the need for good communication to maintain community support.

The guidelines were published by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), which is funded by state departments of transportation and administered by the Transportation Research Board. The authors surveyed communities with camera programs and studied several programs in-depth to develop their recommendations.

Among the key points:

  • The purpose of cameras is to improve safety, so they should be installed at locations where a red light running or speeding problem has been identified. As safety programs, they should be run by police.
  • Money from citations should be used to pay for the cameras, and any excess should go to other highway safety programs. "This should be communicated to the public so automated enforcement is not seen as a tax feeding the general coffers," the authors note.
  • Before a program is launched, there should be a public information campaign to explain the dangers of red light running and how the camera program will work. For the first 30 days of the cameras' operation, only warnings should be issued.
  • The camera vendor should be paid based on equipment and services provided and not based solely on the number of citations issued. A flat fee is "the most acceptable arrangement from the public's perspective," the report states.

"Automated enforcement is an effective safety tool that saves lives and can be funded by the fines violators pay. Following common-sense guidelines can help keep these programs from falling victim to politics," says Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"Police and transportation officials may believe their community has a safety problem that cameras can help solve, but they have to help the public understand that, too. That's why it's important to lay the groundwork and make sure these programs are transparent."

Red light cameras have broad support in many cities where drivers are familiar with them. A 2011 Institute survey found that two-thirds of drivers in 14 big cities with longstanding camera programs support their use (see "Red light cameras see solid support in latest survey," July 19, 2011). Nevertheless, opponents of automated enforcement in a few jurisdictions have succeeded in banning the devices through ballot initiatives.

For red light cameras, the NCHRP report emphasizes the importance of a thorough engineering study of each intersection to make sure the red light running problem is not the result of poor signal timing or visibility. Signals must have an adequate yellow time and, if allowed under state law, an all-red phase. Camera opponents often make accusations about inadequate or even manipulated signal timing, insinuating that drivers are being tricked into running red lights so that more tickets can be issued.

The report also touches on red light running grace periods and speed tolerances. For red light cameras, the authors recommend a grace period of at least 0.1 second, meaning citations aren't issued if the violation occurs within that period after the light has changed. Speed tolerances — typically from 4 to 11 mph over the posted limit — should be the same for traditional and automated enforcement, the report recommends. Grace periods and speed tolerances should be publicized so that the programs are seen as fair, the authors recommend.

Finally, the report emphasizes that automated enforcement shouldn't take the place of traditional police enforcement, and programs should be evaluated regularly for their impact on crashes.

Meanwhile, the Australian paper, written by researchers from Queensland University of Technology, is based on 2011 audits of speed camera programs in New South Wales and Victoria. The reviews were prompted by a perceived lack of community confidence.

Both reviews were positive, finding that the programs had safety benefits and that officials were choosing camera locations appropriately and not to maximize revenue. Those findings should be used to tout the advantages of automated enforcement, the authors note. One of the few problems highlighted in the audits was a need to dispel misconceptions about speeding and speed enforcement in Victoria.

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