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Do Red Light Cameras Make Green (Money) Or Red (Blood)?

Phil Berg
03/18/2011

Television images of cars being T-boned at intersections are impossible for viewers to ignore. That´s great news for shows such as ABC´s Good Morning America, which aired such video a few weeks ago in a story about the auto insurance industry´s study claiming automated "red light cameras" saved lives. These devices activate if a vehicle enters an intersection when the traffic light turns red, record the license plate, and mail the vehicle owner a citation with a substantial fine. A percentage of the proceeds from each ticket goes to private companies who sell the devices to local governments and then operate the devices. This percentage is typically one-third of the ticket revenue, which can annually total $1 million even in small municipalities.

In reality, however, the incidences of cars speeding through intersections when the light is red is rare; just two percent of all highway fatalities occur during red lights in intersections, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Fewer are caused by cars intentionally running red lights.

This small slice of traffic enforcement, though, is creating big headlines. There is a fervor in many state legislatures and in regional referendums to ban "red light cameras". The reason is that in some cases the devices seem to cause an increase in accidents at intersections.

How´s that? Most of the cars ticketed by the "red light cameras" are those that entered the intersection when the light was yellow and on the verge of turning red, many state legislators from Washington state to Florida have discovered. When motorists fear a photo ticket in these intersections, they tend to slam on their brakes, increasing the number of rear-end collisions, and possibly deaths.

The state of California suggests that yellow light duration be no shorter than 4.2 seconds, while the national highway constructors industry says 3.8 seconds should be the shortest duration. Texas requires 4.7-second yellow lights on roads with speeds of 50 mph and higher. However, yellow lights in intersections equipped with "red light cameras" are often set to last only 3 seconds, according to data from court cases. In one recent case in Glassboro, New Jersey, a motorist who had been issued a ticket discovered that the yellow light duration was only 3 seconds, while New Jersey law says that the minimum yellow light time must be 4 seconds. As a result, a reported 12,000 tickets worth $1 million were thrown out.


In cases of shortened yellow light duration, more motorists are then photographed and ticketed, producing more revenue for the private "red light camera" operators, claim citizen groups organized to ban the devices. As a result, the citizen groups charge, more motorists become trigger-happy with their brake pedals at these intersections, and accidents increase. In 2004, a Texas Transportation Institute study found that increasing the duration of yellow lights by 1.0 second reduced intersection accidents by 40 percent.

Most people without a financial interest in the results would agree that fewer accidents is a better outcome that more ticket revenue.

Of the five jurisdictions that were able to bring the choice of "red light camera" enforcement in their municipalities to a vote last November, all five banned the devices, including the large cities of Houston and Anaheim. "I would say the trend of red light cameras is on the decline," says Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association. "The media loves to show broadside accidents, but the majority of tickets from [red light cameras] are for people turning right on red."

One such "red light camera" was set up recently in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on a busy intersection where turning right on a red light is illegal. It sparked a heated debate when citizens complained to their state representatives, who then introduced a bill to outlaw the devices in the state. Proponents of the devices said that "red light camera" enforcement should be allowed for safety, yet in 2009, intersection fatalities in South Dakota totaled just 7.

Proponents of "red light cameras" include the insurance industry, which supplied the recent "T-bone" footage for the Good Morning America broadcast. Municipalities that have increased revenues from the automated ticketing of "red light cameras" are also in favor of the systems. However, vocal citizens where the devices are installed have urged lawmakers in more than a dozen states to ban the devices on two fronts: First, that tickets issued by a machine are unconstitutional, and second, that there are no accurate data proving the devices actually reduce accidents, despite the recent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety claim. In 2005, a study by The Washington Post showed that crashes in intersections equipped with "red light cameras" in the District of Columbia doubled, and fatalities and injuries increased.

Way back in 1997, Alaska´s state lawmakers banned "red light cameras" after they had already been removed from the state by local municipalities. Alaska in 2009 had just 3 fatalities at traffic-controlled intersections, with no "red light cameras". So the argument continues, whether the devices save lives, as the insurance industry and the private companies that operate "red light camera" traffic enforcement devices claim, or if these devices cause more accidents in their quest to squeeze ticket revenue from motorists.

 

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