D.C. residents agree red light cameras, speed cameras make streets safer in nation's capital

April 25, 2013

Red light cameras and speed cameras are perpetual targets of critics who deem them widely unpopular and unfair. Ask people who live in areas with long-standing automated enforcement programs their view of cameras and a different picture emerges. A new survey by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) shows a large majority of people who live in Washington, D.C., favor camera enforcement.

About 9 of 10 residents said they consider drivers running red lights and stop signs, speeding and not stopping for pedestrians serious threats to their personal safety. Among those surveyed, 87 percent support red light cameras and 76 percent favor speed cameras. Half of respondents favor using cameras to enforce laws against stop sign violations, and 47 percent favor using cameras to enforce laws against crosswalk violations.

In the survey, 93 percent of residents said they were aware of the photo-enforcement program, which includes 47 red light cameras and 43 speed cameras. The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department has used red light cameras since 1999 and speed cameras since 2001. It plans to expand the program this year to include stop sign and crosswalk cameras.

"D.C. residents' opinions about automated enforcement are clear," says Anne McCartt, IIHS senior vice president for research. "Contrary to some media reports, Washingtonians aren't fed up with red light cameras and speed cameras. Pedestrians and drivers alike support them."

Washington is among the estimated 530 U.S. communities using red light cameras and is one of about 125 jurisdictions with speed cameras. Study after study shows that the devices improve safety. Speed cameras are associated with large reductions in violations and injury crashes. Studies by IIHS have found reductions in red light violation rates of about 40 percent after the introduction of cameras. IIHS in January added to the evidence with research showing that Arlington, Va., intersections equipped with red light cameras experienced a drop in red light running rates.

A 2011 IIHS study demonstrated that red light cameras reduced the rate of fatal red light running crashes by 24 percent in 14 U.S. cities with long-standing camera programs. In a follow-up survey of drivers in these cities, 82 percent considered running red lights a serious threat to their personal safety, and nearly all viewed it as unacceptable. One of the cities was D.C., where 78 percent of drivers said they support red light cameras.

How D.C. residents view camera enforcement

Percent who favor or oppose cameras to enforce violations against...
  Favor Oppose
speeding 76% 22%
red light running 87% 12%
stop sign violations 50% 44%
crosswalk violations 47% 46%

In the latest survey, researchers in November 2012 interviewed by telephone 801 people who live in the district, with approximately equal numbers of respondents in each of the city's eight wards. Seventy-one percent had driven and walked in the city during the past month, 23 percent had walked and not driven and 4 percent had driven and not walked. People defined as having walked had done so for at least five minutes during the past month. Nearly all respondents said they had walked, either daily (70%), at least once a week (19%) or at least once a month (5%).

How pedestrians view cameras

Pedestrians are among the main beneficiaries of safer city streets but are sometimes overlooked in discussions about camera enforcement because they don't get citations. D.C. officials have stressed the need to make Washington more walkable and bike-friendly and are using photo enforcement to help.

"Other communities could look to Washington as an example of how to shift the debate over the merits of cameras to the positive benefits they provide for pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as people in cars. Enforcing traffic laws makes the roads safer for everyone," McCartt says.

There were 158 traffic deaths in the district in 2007-11. Of those, 55 percent were motor vehicle occupants and 43 percent were pedestrians or bicyclists. More than half of the pedestrian and bicyclist deaths occurred at an intersection.

Ninety percent of people surveyed who hadn't driven in the city in the past month said they favor speed cameras, and 88 percent favor red light cameras.

The survey revealed some confusion about when pedestrians have the right-of-way. More than 9 in 10 people were aware that D.C. law requires drivers to stop for pedestrians crossing the street in marked crosswalks at intersections without traffic signals and midblock. Only 54 percent knew that drivers must stop for pedestrians crossing at intersections without traffic signals and without marked crosswalks.

To make crossings safer, district officials plan to use cameras at stop signs and crosswalks. Stop sign cameras will detect when a car doesn't come to a complete stop before the stop bar. Crosswalk cameras will record violations when vehicles don't stop for pedestrians in marked crosswalks in the same lane as the vehicle or in an adjacent lane. The cameras will be installed at midblock marked crosswalks and at intersections where the marked crosswalk isn't controlled by a traffic light or stop sign but the minor intersecting street may have a stop sign.

Just over half of residents surveyed said they would support cameras at stop signs, and 47 percent said they would support them at crosswalks. Support was higher among people who hadn't driven in the city in the past month. Two-thirds of people who don't drive would favor stop sign cameras. Nearly 60 percent would support crosswalk cameras.

People opposed to cameras for crosswalks and stop signs most often said they aren't necessary or that these types of violations aren't big problems.

Drivers and camera violations

Slightly fewer people who had driven in the district in the past month said they support speed cameras than people who hadn't driven in the past month, but support for red light cameras was equally high for both groups. Among the driver group, 71 percent favor speed cameras and 86 percent support red light cameras.

D.C. drivers' experience with camera citations

Have received camera citation 58%
Citations were for speeding 85%
Citations were for red light running 20%
Think most recent citation was deserved 59%

One surprising finding is that 58 percent of drivers said they had received a citation in the mail for a camera violation in the city, mostly for speeding. Of these, 55 percent had gotten more than one ticket. Among ticketed drivers, 85 percent had been cited for speeding, 20 percent for red light running and 3 percent for right-on-red violations.

"It's worth noting that 59 percent of the drivers who had been ticketed agreed that they deserved their most recent citation," McCartt points out. "This counters the argument that drivers are being unfairly targeted. The majority of violators knew they had broken the law and agreed with the consequences."

Despite the safety benefits, automated enforcement programs have been a contentious issue in some areas, and Washington is no exception. Controversy over speed cameras led district administrators last year to revise fines for some violations. Fines were raised for speeding more than 25 mph over the limit and lowered for speeding 15 mph or less over the limit, effective November 2012.

Slightly more than half of residents who knew about the cameras also knew about the new fines. More than three-quarters agreed that higher fines for speeding more than 25 mph over the limit are a good idea. Most in favor of the move said it would make roads safer.

Even though media reports often portray camera programs as all about revenue, IIHS found that the majority of D.C. residents don't feel that way. For the minority of residents opposed to automated enforcement, the perception that cameras are mainly revenue generators lingers. Thirty-five percent of residents opposed to speed cameras and 22 percent opposed to red light cameras said they are used to raise money and not to enhance safety. The next most-cited reason was that cameras make mistakes.

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