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All About Red Light Cameras

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In recent years, many cities across the United States have begun installing red light cameras. Although these cameras are touted for their accident-reducing capabilities, evidence suggests that red light cameras might not be effective at reducing traffic accidents. Some studies even suggest that red light cameras might increase traffic accidents in the very intersections that they are supposed to protect. In the face of increasing evidence that these cameras may do more harm than good, however, many cities are actually expanding their use of red light cameras.

Do Red Light Cameras Increase Accident Rates?

Over the past few years, many media outlets and research institutions have studied the effect that red light cameras have on accident rates. Their results have been surprising: In study after study, intersections monitored by red light cameras have seen their accident rates increase, sometimes dramatically. For example, in Los Angeles, one of the local television stations, KCAL, investigated a claim by the city that accidents had decreased by 34 percent at camera-controlled intersections. In fact, the opposite was true: Most camera-controlled intersections had seen accident rates climb, and the accident rate at some intersections tripled. All across the United States, multiple studies have seen the same effect.

How Do Red Light Cameras Change Traffic Patterns?

One reason that red light cameras are thought to increase accident rates is that the presence of the camera alters drivers’ behavior. Some drivers overreact to a yellow light and slam on their brakes early; other drivers accelerate in an attempt to beat the red light. Combined, these competing tendencies can lead to a sharp increase in rear-end impacts. Although both behaviors occur in intersections that aren’t monitored by red light cameras, these behaviors are exaggerated by the presence of the red light camera.

Why Do So Many Cities Use Red Light Cameras?

Although red light cameras don’t do much to reduce accident rates, they are highly effective at bringing in revenue for cash-strapped cities. In one month, the city of St. Petersburg, Fla., pulled in more than $1.2 million in revenue from its 22 newly installed red light cameras. Red light cameras are a cheap and efficient source of revenue; for a nominal installation cost, a single camera can monitor an intersection at all times of the day, producing revenue without drawing wages or benefits.

Although cities may love the revenue that red light cameras bring in, the research is clear and cities need to consider alternatives for actually reducing traffic accidents.