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Do Red Light Cameras Prevent Car Accidents?

Updated on: 3/9/2020

Traffic cameras have become increasingly popular in the United States in recent years, and multiple studies on their effectiveness show that they are at least effective in catching traffic infractions and creating ticket revenue for local governments. And over the past decade or so, many highly-populated cities and counties have begun implementing high-tech traffic cameras designed to capture the information of motorists who run a red light or drive above the speed limit in certain intersections. The cameras are typically assigned to intersections and other areas that are known for a high volume of car accidents and speeding motorists.

Creating Revenue vs. Reducing Car Accidents

In a recent analysis of red light cameras in the Washington, D.C. area, the American Automobile Association (AAA) found that there were a total of 91,550 traffic tickets issued by red light cameras in 2012. That number was approximately 14,000 higher than the previous year, according to AAA. There was no data on any reductions in car accidents since the implementation of the cameras.

But what really has the traffic safety community abuzz is whether or not these cameras are actually serving a purpose in regards to  car accidents and driver safety. The local government reportedly pocketed approximately $13 million in revenue from traffic citations issued by red light cameras in 2012.

It goes without saying that as more red light cameras continue to be implemented, there is a greater opportunity for more tickets to be issued to drivers. But the question that everyone involved in the conversation about traffic cameras is asking is do these cameras offer any safety benefits, such as reducing car accidents and other types of collisions?

Traffic Cameras in Washington State

In Washington state, there is a similar obsession from law enforcement and lawmakers in regard to the benefits of traffic cameras; they raise a significant amount of revenue that is later deposited into the state budget, which makes politicians happy. And law enforcement agencies are able to issue more tickets without having to increase the number of on-duty officers.

A few years back, I was driving in Lynnwood and was preparing to turn right at a stoplight. Granted, this was when traffic cameras were relatively new and there wasn’t as much public awareness about how effective they were.

Sure enough, I did not come to a full and complete stop as I began to make my right-hand turn, and I received a ticket in the mail just a few days later. The image from the camera – evidence of my “violation” – only showed me stopped at the crosswalk. But when I called the police station to ask about the violation, they said that they were issuing tickets to anyone who did not come to a full stop.

According to an article from the Washington Post, these types of violations are responsible for a significant amount of tickets issued by red light cameras.

“Motorists who do not stop and look all ways prior to turning on a red light are endangering themselves and their passengers in addition to any pedestrians, bicyclists, and other motorists who have the right of way at the time,” said a spokesperson with Washington police.

What I, along with many traffic safety advocates across the country, am interested to see is whether there is any statistical evidence linking traffic cameras to improvements in roadway safety. I believe that the ultimate goal of these cameras should be to improve safety and reduce the number of  car accidents that occur at dangerous intersections.

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