Most of us are aware of red light cameras perched atop traffic lights, waiting to take a picture of the next car that breaks the law and zips through a red light. These devices warn drivers to slow down and drive defensively, but according to a study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), they also save lives.
“Red light cameras saved 159 lives in 2004-08 in 14 of the biggest US cities,” reports the IIHS. “Had cameras been operating during that period in all large cities, a total of 815 deaths would have been prevented.” They add, “The actual benefit is even bigger. The rate of all fatal crashes at intersections with signals — not just red light running crashes — fell 14 percent in the camera cities and crept up 2 percent in the noncamera cities. In the camera cities, there were 17 percent fewer fatal crashes per capita at intersections with signals in 2004-08 than would have been expected. That translates into 159 people who are alive because of the automated enforcement programs.”
The New York Times explains why red light crashes, or T-bone crashes, are especially dangerous. “Crashes that result from running a light are defined by the institute as T-bone crashes, in which a vehicle running a light crashes into the side of another vehicle — the type of crash in which occupants in the impacted car are particularly vulnerable because there is comparatively little material to absorb the impact.”
Despite these life saving results, critics are still skeptical of the cameras. “The research was immediately challenged by camera opponents. Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association, a drivers' rights group, says cameras increase crashes in some areas and that other strategies are more effective in making intersections safer,” USA Today reports, and quotes Biller as saying, “‘Lengthening the duration of the yellow cycle can reduce red-light running by 50% or more.’” That means drivers have more time to slow down, and the government won’t need to spend millions on the cameras.
Other critics say the cameras aren’t worth the millions they cost and are only used to make money. The Washington Post explains, “Drivers often denounce use of the cameras as a naked money-making scheme - and the District [of Columbia] made almost $7.2 million on 85,678 red-light tickets from June 2009 through May.”
Despite this criticism, IIHS president Adrian Lund says, "The cities that have the courage to use red light cameras despite the political backlash are saving lives.”