Red Light Camera Controversy

It’s been said that a picture is worth 1,000 words, but in the case of red light camera photos, it’s not so simple. As they become ever more popular with city governments throughout the country, and their tell-tale flashes more common at intersections, the furor over their use grows louder. Some claim they don’t always work, saddling citizens with difficult-to-contest tickets they don’t deserve. Conflicting studies seem to indicate that they reduce side collisions while increasing rear-end collisions. Traffic safety advocates vigorously defend their use. So who’s right?

First, let’s look at the studies. In a perfect world, these cameras would be installed only as safety measures — rather than revenue-generators — so whether or not they make drivers safer should be the main criteria by which they’re judged. Not all studies agree that they do: a 2005 New York Times survey found that rear-end crashes rose 15% upon introduction of the lights, thanks to twitchy drivers slamming on their brakes at the first sign of a yellow light. (Injuries associated with such crashes rose 24%.) But an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study found that side-impact crashes were reduced 24%, with injuries resulting from such crashes falling 16%. I think most of us can agree that being t-boned at high speed is generally worse than being rear-ended at a moderate speed — so I would count these stats as an argument, albeit a mild one, in favor of the cameras.

Unfortunately, there are other factors besides safety to consider; the cameras are considered revenue-generators — and indeed, costing between $50,00 and $100,000 per intersection, they have to be — and so the temptation to misuse them does exist. One of several such cases happened in Tennessee, where the duration of a yellow light was illegally shortened, resulting in hundreds of undeserved camera tickets being issued, which were eventually refunded.

In some cases, revenue-sharing agreements between cities and the companies that maintain the camera systems have been forged, leading to cameras being placed in spots where they’ll rack up more tickets rather than just keep people safer. But whether or not revenue sometimes trumps safety, some groups (like the National Motorists’ Association, a drivers’ advocacy group) argue that the cameras violate due process — because drivers are guilty until proven innocent.

It’ll surely be a controversy for years to come, but it seems to me that most of these problems stem from the removal of human judgment from the enforcement of the law. You can reason with a police officer — sometimes — but you can’t argue with Robocop. [via mental floss]

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