A Look at Red Light Cameras Around the Country

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Red light cameras are everywhere. They’re in hundreds of cities, including large municipalities like Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Drivers groan about them, critics call them revenue generators, and no one welcomes the sight of a red light camera ticket in their mailbox. But despite the animosity felt toward these devices, they continue to be popular tools for reducing red light runners and subsequently, dangerous crashes at intersections. Are they really effective at promoting public safety? We’ll take a look at the successes and failures of red light cameras across the U.S., and discuss your best bet for avoiding the dreaded red light ticket in your mailbox.

Red Light Initiatives Nationwide

Red light cameras have been met with mixed success in American cities. Some have utilized them effectively for years, others have repealed them, and many have made millions of dollars in revenue.

  • In Houston, red light cameras were deactivated after years of use, shot down by both the city council and city voters. Those against the cameras believed them to be a moneymaking scheme that did not have a large impact on public safety. In all, the program netted the city nearly $44 million.
  • Los Angeles also voted to shut down their controversial red light program, citing a lack of viable enforcement. Only 60% of tickets were paid, as the photo enforcement law made compliance a voluntary action. LA councilman Mitch Englander explained that the program was shut down because “it wasn’t effective and was costing [the city] more to enforce than we were getting back from it.”
  • Westminster, Md., a Baltimore suburb, deactivated most of their red light cameras for a more troubling reason — they were believed to be causing accidents, while at the same time costing taxpayers money. Although there were a low number of citations, there are also a high number of collisions. Only one camera remains in the city, as it is the only one that is effectively reducing accidents and providing revenue.
  • Arlington, Va.’s red light cameras are a bright spot in the case for red light cameras. A new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety indicates that Arlington’s red light cameras are doing what they are intended: reducing the number of red light violations, especially those that would likely result in crashes.
  • In Fairfax City, Va, red light cameras are effective, and city officials are not shy about discussing the cameras’ role in revenues. City officials recently announced that they plan to expand the red light program in order to finance the hiring of additional police officers. Reports indicate that the cameras are doing more than generating money, however, as they are also increasing safety on the city’s streets.

Although red light cameras can be effective in some cities, when asked, citizens tend not to vote for red light cameras. When put up to vote, residents of Houston, Cincinnati, Anaheim, and Albuquerque all expressed their displeasure against red light cameras and voted to either stop initiatives or shut down projects entirely. But, there is national support for the cameras: a 2009 survey of voters found that 69% of Americans support the use of red light cameras at dangerous intersections.

Public Safety, or a Financial Resource?

Some cities report that they struggle to earn enough revenue from red light violations to support the cost of cameras, but critics of red light cameras often point to the devices as moneymaking schemes. This is an accusation that’s hard for many cities to defend against, as even in small municipalities, cities often clear at least $1 million annually in red light camera revenues.

It’s also been shown that some cities are gaming the system for higher revenues, most commonly by short timing yellow lights so that more drivers will be ticketed by the cameras. In Chattanooga, Tenn., court officials ordered fines refunded for 176 motorists who were ticketed by an improperly timed traffic light. This is troubling, as studies indicate that a longer yellow light is best for safety. Los Angeles, a city that shut down red light cameras, was found to have installed cameras at intersections with the highest likelihood of producing revenue, not the highest number of accidents from red light runners.

Some cities have implemented resourceful uses for the revenue, using the money for local medical centers, public safety initiatives, and expanded police presence. But the revenue that cities get to put to productive use often pales in comparison to what the companies behind the red light camera systems are making. In the St. Louis area alone, American Traffic Solutions (ATS) collected more than $18.2 million as of late 2012. The company typically takes $31.33 from every ticket collected, and each camera costs about $5,000 to lease. The revenue for these companies continues even if cities deactivate their cameras: when Houston deactivated their red light system, they settled with ATS for approximately $12 million. In some cases, cameras cost taxpayers money to operate, even if they do not stop accidents.

From Court to Collections

Red light violations are important enough to warrant special attention in the form of red light cameras, but, oddly enough, they’ve been downgraded from a moving violation to a bill in many cities. Drivers who are issued a red light ticket from a police officer are required to fulfill the appropriate obligations, typically a court date, monetary fine, and license points. But for drivers who are caught by a red light camera, the obligation is often not much more than a simple bill in the mail.

Walk away from a police-issued ticket, and you’re likely to face serious issues including a warrant and possible jail time. Forget about your red light camera violation, and the worst thing that’s likely to happen to you is a ding on your credit report, if anything happens at all. In most cities, red light camera violations are a “civil infraction,” and thus not subject to the same punishments as a regular ticket. In Houston, unpaid tickets were subject to collection action, but in Los Angeles, courts sent out collection letters, but took no further action. There are, however, cities where red light camera violations are taken more seriously, like Edison Township, N.J. where one driver lost her license over a ticket that she wasn’t even responsible for. But with so many cities simply turning into a collections action at most, does this mean red light running is a lesser offense?

The Effectiveness of Red Light Cameras

Forget revenues and collection agencies, there’s a bigger question here: do red light cameras actually work? That is, do the cameras cut down on red light runners and make intersections safer? Research shows that they do. In the presence of red light cameras, drivers are more likely to slam on their brakes and stop at the red light to avoid a ticket, potentially getting rear-ended by drivers behind them. Although it’s still an accident, rear-end accidents are preferable to right-angle, or “T-bone” crashes due to their higher risk of injury and fatality. Rear-end accidents typically result in minor damage and personal injury. National data confirmed that right angle crashes, or “T-bone” crashes, decrease while rear end crashes increase. Total right-angle crashes were reduced by 24.6%, and dangerous right-angle crashes were reduced by 15.7%. Rear end crashes increased by 14.9%.

Most state data lines up with the national trend. In Texas, red light-related crashes dropped by 25%, and right-angle crashes decreased by 32%. There are some states, however, where red light cameras have not been associated with an increase in safety. In Virginia, accidents followed the national trend of reduced right-angle crashes and increased rear-end crashes, but in a troubling turn, the number of overall accidents with serious injuries increased by 18% at the state’s red light camera intersections. Critics point out that this may be in part due to Virginia’s practice of shortening yellow light timing at red light camera intersections. New Mexico has seen mixed results, as some intersections have seen a decrease in crashes, while others show an increase. Interestingly, the state is seeing a related positive effect — speeding violations have dropped at selected red light camera intersections.

Red light cameras can support police departments, making them more effective at catching red light runners. Although police officers will still write tickets for red light violations cameras can issue more tickets than a single cop at an intersection. There is still police involvement in red light camera violations, however, as police departments will typically review each citation. Howard County, Md. employs police civilian employees to review violations and determine if citation criteria is met. Rochester, N.Y.‘s police department reviews evidence three times before a Notice of Liability is mailed out.

Red light cameras can be useful beyond light-running violations, offering video witness for accidents that occur at the intersection. “(Red light cameras) have come in handy when traffic homicides occur in the middle of the night and there are few, if any witnesses around,” said Fort Lauderdale police captain Karen Deitrich. “I have pulled video which refuted what an eye witness said to a fatality where a pedestrian was struck. The witness placed the blame on the driver saying he had no head lights on. We were able to pull the footage and prove the driver did have his lights on and the pedestrian ran into the path of the vehicle. I am sure the driver of the car is pro-red light camera since it probably saved him a possible traffic homicide trial.”

Avoiding a Red Light Camera Ticket

No one wants to find a red light camera ticket in their mailbox, but the good news is that they’re relatively easy to fight. Although it’s best to avoid getting a red light camera ticket in the first place, if you do end up with a notice, there are a few steps you can take to get out of it:

Be safe, and don’t run lights.

The most obvious defense against red light camera tickets is practicing safe driving. If you don’t run a red light, you’re not likely to be snagged for a ticket. If you’re approaching an intersection on a stale green light, slow down so that you’ll be prepared to stop if necessary. And if you see a yellow light, stop if it is safe for you to do so. You should also be careful to stop your car behind the limit line, as going over the line can trigger cameras, even if you haven’t fully entered the intersection.

Know the law.

It’s important to know what constitutes running a red light, and the laws that enforce red light violations. In some cities, a rolling right turn is legal, but may still trigger a red light camera violation. These tickets can be dismissed. There may also be a statute of limitations on infractions. One driver in Miami was able to get a ticket dismissed when it arrived 71 days after the alleged infraction, 11 days after the statute of limitations allows.

Contest questionable tickets and ask for evidence.

Most violations will come along with photo or video evidence, but if you’re not provided with this information, or it does not seem sufficient to prove your guilt, it may make sense to fight it. Check the ticket for accuracy; any issues with it may lead to your dismissal. This is especially true if you were not the person driving at the time of the incident. In most states, the driver is liable, not the owner. Examine the photo or video evidence — does the picture of the driver look like you? Proving that you were not the driver is an easy way to dismiss your ticket.

Go to court over the ticket.

Going to court over a red light ticket can be a risky endeavor. Instead of simply paying a fine, you may end up with court costs as well, but if you win, you can walk away without paying anything. This is the best way to get out of unfair violations. If you believe that there was something wrong with the red light camera on the day your ticket was issued, challenge it, like the case in Chattanooga, Tenn., where the motorists were able to get a refund on tickets. You should also check for posted signs that warn of photo enforcement. In some states, a missing or non-visible sign is grounds for ticket dismissal. Court is also a smart move if you admit that you ran the red light, but had a good reason for doing so, such as avoiding a serious accident or harm to others.

Ignore your ticket entirely.

As discussed, in some cities, there is no real penalty for throwing your red light camera ticket in the trash and forgetting it ever existed. This only works, of course, if your violation happens in one of these cities. Do your research to find out what the penalties are for ignoring a ticket, if any.

Red light cameras are a hotly debated safety enforcement tool. Although they may be revenue generators, they are often also often effective at reducing dangerous accidents and supporting police departments. These devices are a good idea overall, but they’re far from perfect, so we can expect to continue to see refinement and development in red light cameras as cities determine what works best for their particular communities. For drivers, it’s wise to stay safe, avoid running red lights, and to know the law when it comes to fighting a red light camera ticket.

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