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Do red-light cameras actually make us safer?

Posting in Cities

In Washington, D.C., red-light cameras and speed cameras brought in $65 million, helping the city to an estimated $140 million budget surplus for the 2012 fiscal year. But the goal for these money making cameras is to keep people safe by fining drivers whenever they break the law. Safety cameras are clearly bringing in a lot of revenue but are they holding up the safety end of the bargain?

According to new research, the answer might be -- to the disappointment of some drivers -- yes, they are making us safer.

To get at this, researchers from Old Dominion University studied the behavior of drivers in two Virginia cities where red-light cameras were installed and then removed. Data on driver behavior was compared between the time before the cameras were removed, immediately after they were removed, and one year after they were removed. Eric Jaffe reports on the findings of the study in The Atlantic Cities:

In nearly 2,800 light cycles, about a quarter of all last cars to enter the intersection went through on green, and 63 percent on yellow. The remaining 12 percent crossed on red — but when the cameras were still on, that rate was only 3 percent. (At intersections that never had cameras, the last-driver-through crossed on red 14 to 15 percent of the time.)

That finding alone wasn't terribly surprising: when punishment for a behavior goes from nearly certain to random at best, you expect the behavior to increase. What intrigued (and unsettled) the researchers was how quickly drivers reverted to red-light running form. In the immediately aftermath of the law's expiration, the risk of someone running a red light at an intersection was three times higher than it had been when cameras were on.

A year later it was four times higher, with all risk reductions having been erased.

That's pretty clear evidence that red-light cameras are doing their job of preventing drivers from driving in an unsafe manner. If you're upset that cities are cashing in on red-light cameras I can think of one way to make sure they don't: stop when the light's red.

The study was recently published in Accident Analysis & Prevention.

[Via The Atlantic Cities]

Photo: Flickr/sylvar

— By on October 3, 2012, 2:02 AM PST

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure