The national debate over red-light cameras is heating up again as a new analysis from a traffic safety group argues that the controversial devices saved 159 lives in 14 cities during a five-year period.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says red-light cameras reduced the rate of fatal red-light running by 24% from 2004 to 2008. Had the cameras been installed in all U.S. cities with populations above 200,000, 815 deaths would have been prevented, says the Insurance Institute, a group funded by auto insurers that aims to reduce deaths, injuries and property damage caused by crashes on the nation’s roads.

“The cities that have the courage to use red-light cameras despite the political backlash are saving lives,” IIHS President Adrian Lund says.

The research was immediately challenged by camera opponents. Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association, a drivers’ rights group, says cameras increase crashes in some areas and that other strategies are more effective in making intersections safer.

“Lengthening the duration of the yellow cycle can reduce red-light running by 50% or more,” Biller says, citing a 2005 study by the Texas Transportation Institute, a research arm of Texas A&M University.

“Doing nothing is better than putting up cameras,” says Greg Mauz, a researcher for the Best Highway Safety Practices Institute, which studies traffic-safety laws. “There are about 700 additional deaths since cameras have proliferated, from 2001 on. The whole idea that cameras can prevent fatalities and crashes is total nonsense.”

Mauz noted that cameras have never been approved by voters in 16 tries. Camera opponents such as Mauz argue that their only purpose is to generate revenue.

Across the USA:

•An Iowa state representative has introduced a bill that would require cities to hold public hearings and apply to the state before they could legally operate red-light cameras.

•Virginia legislators are considering a bill to bar cities from installing red-light cameras after July 1. Cameras currently installed could remain.

•Houston voters rejected cameras in November; Baytown, Texas, voted to end its program. Mukilteo, Wash., Garfield Heights, Ohio, and Anaheim, Calif., also vetoed camera programs.

•Murrieta, Calif., voted to expand the use of red-light cameras; an anti-camera petition drive failed in Maryland.

Via USA Today