red-light camera

Red-light cameras are used in about 555 communities around the country.

At the heart of the debate about red-light cameras is this question: Do they save lives by reducing accidents or are they primarily a way for cities to raise money in an era of lagging tax revenue?

A long list of cities and the state of Connecticut are clamoring to put them up as other cities are snatching them down.

The legal climate is even more confounding. In recent weeks:

  • A Florida judge ruled that that state’s camera law is unconstitutional.
  • The Washington state Supreme Court ruled that local voters can’t ban red-light cameras by ballot initiative.
  • In Missouri, after a circuit judge in St. Louis ruled cameras invalid because the machines have not been sanctioned by the Legislature, another St. Louis circuit judge ruled the opposite way a month later.

Traffic cameras can generate enormous revenue.

Chicago, for instance, reaps more than $60 million a year from its cameras, according to Rajiv Shah, adjunct assistant professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has studied the issue in that city.

Little wonder red-light cameras are widely unpopular.

Camera opponents such as volunteer researcher Greg Mauz of the Best Highway Safety Practices Institute say that in about two dozen referendums on cameras, they have failed in all but one.

“This is a clear case of government not demonstrating value for money,” says Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C. He says cities that install cameras should be more forthcoming about what they’re doing and why.

“Accountability is the best way to get public buy-in,” Schank says. “How about we have websites that say, here’s how much we’ve collected, here’s where the money’s going, and here’s what’s happening with accidents and fatalities? … I think they don’t say it because they’ve been able to get away without saying it.”

One big issue for camera opponents is privacy, says Joseph Giglio, a professor at Northeastern University’s College of Business Administration who studies transportation. “Many people who are opposed, while they may appreciate the safety benefits, the security benefits and the opportunity to raise revenue, they’re opposed to the intrusion on their privacy,” he says.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, red-light cameras are used in about 555 communities around the USA.

Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia have at least one red-light camera, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Nine states — Arkansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wisconsin — prohibit them, GHSA says.

IIHS said in a study last year that cameras reduce the fatal red light running crash rate by 24%.

Other studies have shown much smaller drops or even increases at intersections where red light cameras were installed.

Via USA Today