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Are red-light cameras unsafe?

February 2, 2011
Red light camera system at the Springfield, Oh...

Image via Wikipedia

Red-light cameras seem to be all the rage in municipalities across the country. Personally, I don’t have a huge problem with them. I try to be a law-abiding and conscientious driver, lead footed to be sure, but I don’t make a habit of blowing red-lights or stop signs. I do however turn right on red. If I can see the traffic, or lack there of, I turn. I’ve never understood why I can’t.

What concerns me about the red light cameras is that I think, maybe, they’re having a psychological effect on drivers at other intersections.

See, before they actually installed red-light cameras at intersections, I never really knew what they looked like. I wasn’t sure if an intersection had them or not. So subconsciously I think I was a little concerned with getting caught by something I couldn’t see.

However, now that I know these things are actually enormous apparati that you can see from a mile away and flash after every red-light cycle, I know exactly what to look for, and thus, I’m a lot more comfortable speeding through a yellow light just as it turns to red (or slightly after) at stop lights that don’t have cameras. Don’t worry, I use common sense, I’m not arbitrarily rushing through lights willy-nilly.

I realized the psychological effect the stop-light cameras were having on me about a month after the light in our town went on-line. I also notice that I almost never drive through that intersection anymore.

I’m not sure why the town installed a red-light camera at the largest intersection of my little hamlet, Glassboro, NJ. The intersection, while busy, is hardly a heavy commuter intersection. It has left-turn only lanes in all directions, with dedicated red/green arrow lights. It’s not like there was a lot of “blocking the box” occurring.

I suspect there was just one significant reason the stop-light cameras were installed: revenue. Under the guise of public safety, of course.

That I don’t like. And what annoys me more is that the municipalities seem to be extremely open about how much revenue the red-light cameras are generating.

In an article published not long after the red-light camera was installed in Glassboro, the local paper reported that the camera had cited 1,400 violations at $85 a piece for a one-month tally of $119,000. The town gets about $46 of every violations. The company operating the cameras gets the rest. Although, I’ve read elsewhere that the county gets $28 cut of the violation.

I was pretty shocked by the totals being thrown around in that article. For a fairly small college town, 1,400 violations in a month seemed really high. I’m hard-pressed to believe that a cop on the corner would have nabbed that many violators. I also suspect that of those 1,400 violations, few were causing a nuisance or creating an unsafe intersection.

It strikes me that what’s really happening, thanks to the power of automation and technology, is we’ve found an easy way to fleece members of our own community.

I have no problem with using technology to ensure safety or track down criminals. I do have a problem with making a mountain out of a molehill and then robbing from citizens who are not creating a hazardous situation.

Let’s see, so far I think red-light cameras are inducements to dangerous driving elsewhere and thievery on the public. Anything else?

As a matter of fact yes, I wonder if they’re unsafe too.

It’s possible that they’re a bigger traffic hazard than having no red-light camera. People get nervous at red-light cameras, so they stop short instead of going through the light. I suspect studies may eventually show there are more rear-ending accidents at stop light cameras than at other intersections. The Best Highway Safety Practices Institute thinks so, though the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety disagrees.

At the end of 2010, it was reported that the stop light at the Glassboro intersection were rigged wrong, the yellow’s were flashing one second too short. Thus, several hundred violators now have a case to have their citations reviewed. I doubt there was anything shady about the timing error, just an input mistake. However, it certainly doesn’t make me any more likely to appreciate the red-light cameras.

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