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Friday, April 10, 2009

Red Light Cameras – A Different Take

More and more municipalities are installing red light cameras (RLCs) and as their use grows so does the controversy surrounding their use. Recent articles report that some drivers complain that RLCs violate their right to privacy and there have been reports of angry drivers striking back by disabling RLCs, or buying special sprays or license plate covers to blur their license plate.

Lawmakers are complaining too. Some cities are voting to remove the cameras because, with the lower incidence of red light running, they cost too much without the ticket revenue to pay for them.

To fully understand some of these issues it is helpful to first, understand what red light running is and why the cameras were seen to be necessary in the first place.
Red light running is a form of aggressive driving that has grown to epidemic proportions over the last 20 years. An act that was rarely, if ever, seen by older drivers is now seen on a daily basis.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) cites a study conducted at 19 intersections (without red light cameras) over four states showing that people were running red lights at a rate of 3.2 per hour. The IIHS states that more people are likely to be injured by red light runners than by any other type of urban crash. The National Highway Traffic Administration reported that almost 900 people were killed and an estimated 153,000 were injured in crashes that involved red light running in 2007. About half of the deaths in red light running crashes are pedestrians and occupants in other vehicles who are hit by the red light runners. A study by Old Dominion University in Virginia (ODU) showed that 55.8 percent of Americans admit to running red lights; yet 96 percent of drivers were afraid of being hit by a red light runner.

The IIHS states that studies show that RLCs cut down on the incidence of red light running dramatically however one study that has gained the most attention claims that RLCs increase the number of collisions at the intersections where they have been installed.

A frank discussion of all of these issues is in order:

Red Light Cameras increase the number of collisions at intersections – The study cited by those who want to do away with RLCs did show that, once drivers became aware of the presence of an RLC, there was a slight increase in low velocity rear-end collisions by drivers who assumed the car ahead wouldn’t stop. The data clearly shows that the incidents of high velocity side collisions (commonly called "T-bone collisions") by red light runners are dramatically reduced at intersections where RLCs are installed. A low impact rear-end collision is far more survivable than a high velocity T-bone collision.
ODU also conducted a unique study of intersections in Virginia Beach VA where they had the opportunity to study red light runners before an RLC was installed, during the time the RLC was in operation, and after the law providing for the RLC expired and the cameras were removed. The study showed that the number of crashes decreased during the time the RLCs were operational but, once the lights were removed, the number of red light runners increased by 3.59 percent within one year. It seemed that once aggressive divers were no longer worried about being photographed, they ran the lights more than ever.

Red Light Cameras are a drain on city revenues. – Cities that initially experienced an increase in revenues from RLCs become dismayed when, as the incidents of red light running decrease, they stop generating revenue and become an unexpected revenue loser. Cities that install RLCs as a way of generating money seem to be seeking the wrong goal. The deaths and permanently disabling injuries prevented should be the goal of RLCs. We pay large sums of money each year to hire and equip police officers in the hope that, by their mere presence, they will prevent crime from happening in the first place and very few complain about that cost. RLCs act as a permanent police presence working tirelessly 24/7. If we were to compare the cost of an RLC with the cost of posting police officers at an intersection 24 hours a day it would quickly become apparent that RLCs are a bargain. The IIHS says that the cost of red light running in America is approximately 7 billion dollars per year. It is difficult to determine how much money is saved by an event that never happens and prevention should be the goal.

Red Light Cameras are a violation of privacy. - The Supreme Court has held that no one has a reasonable expectation of privacy for acts conducted in public. If you are out on a city street, you can’t hide behind the Constitution's guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures, especially when you are breaking the law. Those irate drivers who have tried to damage or disable RLCs aren’t valiant defenders of the fourth amendment but rather, vandals who are destroying tax payer property.

Security cameras of all types have become so common that we usually forget that they are there and no one seems to complain because we know they are there to protect us. RLCs only take pictures of those drivers who are running the red light; not those who are obeying the law. The nightly news never shows the guy who went into a convenience store to buy a big gulp; only the armed thug who came in to rob the store. Those who are worried about their privacy should obey the law.

The studies show that RLCs save lives. Attitudes toward them might be different if it was your spouse or child who was injured or killed by a red light runner.

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