Transport Theory

Majority of drivers favor red-light cameras, study says

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Run a red light, get a fine in the mail: a new study shows most drivers support the use of red-light cameras.

You know when you just miss the yellow light at the intersection? Well, in 539 towns and cities around the U.S., you can receive a fine in the mail weeks or even months later for the infraction,  thanks to a system of cameras intended to stop drivers from running red lights. And a new study shows that a majority of Americans favors the use of these cameras as a way of making intersections safer.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) carried out a survey of drivers in 14 major cities in which red-light cameras operate. Poll results showed that two-thirds of these drivers support their use. A majority of those polled in all but one of the cities favored the use of the cameras, which photograph cars that drive through red lights and send them fines through the mail.

The study was intended to follow up on a recent finding that red-light-related crashes have dropped by 24 percent in those cities.

Ninety percent of respondents said it is unacceptable to run a red light, while eighty percent said it is a threat to personal safety. Among the cities polled, support for the cameras was highest in Washington, D.C. (78 percent), and lowest in Long Beach, C.A. (48 percent).

According to Consumer Reports, 676 people were killed and around 130,000 injured in accidents red-light-related accidents in 2009.

Those who criticize the use of red-light cameras say they are an invasion of privacy and are intended not to increase safety but to increase cities’ revenue by issuing tickets. Moreover, more than one in four of those polled believe the cameras can make mistakes and actually make roads less safe.

The cameras have become a heated issue in Houston, T.X., whose residents voted last November to do away with the them.  Last month, however, a federal judge threw out the vote’s results on a technicality. Red-light fines are expected to resume in the city shortly.

Critics of the practice also argue that some systems are rigged to increase the number of fines -- by shortening the yellow-light interval, for instance. In cities where budgets are already tight, furthermore, the cost of implementing red-light cameras would be high, in exchange for what critics believe would be only marginal increases in safety.

Miami had expected to reap $10 million from the 32 cameras installed throughout the city this year. But infractions dropped, as drivers tried to avoid fines, and the projected revenue is now less than $2 million. The shortfall may add to a $15 million projected budget deficit for 2012, which could force the government to give workers one unpaid day off per week, Bloomberg reports.

The survey results, showing widespread support for the red-light cameras, have raised questions from some. Jonathon Ramsey at AutoBlog points out that the sampling of respondents - 3,000 - was miniscule compared to the millions of residents of the cities polled, so its results may not be entirely representative.

What do you think about red-light cameras? A government invasion of privacy? An easy revenue stream for city coffers? Or a legitimate way to make drivers more careful around intersections by hitting them where it hurts -- their wallet?

Photo: Horia Varlan/Flickr

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Channtal Fleischfresser

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Channtal Fleischfresser has worked for The Economist, WNET/Channel 13, Al Jazeera English, Wall Street Journal and Associated Press. She holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure