Red Light Cameras On The Decline, As Everyone Realizes They Don't Make Roads Safer, They Just Make Money

from the good-riddance dept

For many years we’ve written about the problems of red light cameras. Installed over the past few years in many cities, the public statements supporting them were always about increased safety on our roads. However, as we’ve noted, plenty of studies showed that the cameras actually tended to increase accidents, showed little to no safety benefit, and were almost always driven by monetary incentives. Because of this, there were numerous reports of various municipalities actually deciding to decrease the time on yellow lights, thereby getting more money from tickets, but massively increasing the safety risk. Multiple studies have shown that the one way to make intersections safer is to increase the yellow light time — but in order to make more money, many were decreasing it (often below legal limits).

The anger over these tactics has been increasing quite a bit over the past few years and a variety of cities decided to cancel their programs, causing the leading company providing these systems (who takes a large cut of every ticket), Redflex, to face some financial difficulties.

It appears that the trends are definitely against red light cameras. Cyrus Farivar has a great article (though, annoyingly paginated) about the decline in red light cameras, noting that 2013 was the first year where more red light camera systems were turned off than turned on.

Redflex’s US operations took a hit in 2013 as the company installed 54 new systems—but removed 101. Redflex’s recent fiscal report (PDF) shows that its after-tax net profits in a six-month period have dropped by half: plummeting from $7.1 million in the first half of 2012 to $3.6 million in the first six months of 2013.

Meanwhile, the article also takes on the various “competing studies” concerning red light cameras, and pointing to one study that compared a whole bunch of the studies, evaluated their methodologies, and found that the ones that showed benefits to red light cameras, almost invariably had dreadful methodologies that didn’t take into account the basic variability in accidents at any given intersection, and the likelihood of a return to the mean (in short: intersections with an abnormally large number of accidents frequently see that amount go down the following year — and red light camera makers and the studies supporting them rarely took into account that variability, but assigned such a decrease to the cameras). When correcting for such problems, the study of studies found the data showed that red light cameras are a problem, not a solution:

The meta-analysis concluded that, when only the best studies were considered, “The results of the meta-analysis are rather unfavorable for RLCs… According to the results from these studies, right-angle collisions are reduced by about 10 percent, rear-end collisions increase significantly by about 40 percent, and the overall effect on all types of crashes is an increase by about 15 percent. Only studies with weaker study designs yield results that are more favorable for RLCs.”

The study which those researches said had the best methodology also found significant negative impact overall:

the increase in costs from the increase in rear-end crashes more than offset the reduction in costs from the decrease in red light running crashes.

Hopefully, this is the beginning of the end for red light cameras. We’re all for making intersections safer, but the way to do that is to increase the time on yellow lights — and for places that still don’t have this: have a brief interval where lights in both directions are red, rather than switching simultaneously to red in one direction and green in the other. And yes, every time I make that last point, people who don’t live in places where that’s the case marvel that any place in the world has this, but it’s true in many, many places. Switching that to having an interval with both directions red, plus a longer yellow light, will actually make people safer, and yet… it doesn’t make any more money, so very few have been willing to make this simple switch.

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Comments on “Red Light Cameras On The Decline, As Everyone Realizes They Don't Make Roads Safer, They Just Make Money”

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Ninja (profile) says:

I believe fines should be the last resource used. First a good dose of education and awareness should be employed. And common sense and law enforcement actively working on the streets. Cameras could be awesome to aid law enforcement but much like a whole lot of things they are prone to abuse -specially because there are economic incentives..

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“I believe fines should be the last resource used.”

I don’t believe fines should be used at all, at least in the way they are in the US. The way fines are used in the US they are simply a way to let those with more money be punished less painfully than those with less. It would be fairer to just use jail time for everyone, regardless of wealth.

Having said that, I’ve been told that in some other countries fines are based on a percentage of annual income. That would at least be a big improvement.

ChrisB (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Jail time is ridiculous. Some people, especially those in more precarious financial situations, can lose their jobs if they are forced to miss work. This is highly regressive. And will just fill jails up with normal people.

Using a percent of annual income sounds good, but is totally inefficient. What, they are going to look at my tax return?

Fines are the best way to curb bad behaviour.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I think it should be an either or. If someone is sentenced to a day in jail vs a $100 fine perhaps they can choose which day of the week they are going to serve jail time and serve on their day off. This could be especially helpful to those that don’t make much money and it could help ensure that the laws aren’t as bias against the rich that make more money since they can afford to pay the fine and the poor can’t. But I can also see how such a system could be abused by some as well so precautions need to be taken to prevent abuse.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I think it should be an either or.

Don’t pay the fine and you’ll end up in jail. Actually, you can request jail time from the judge in lieu of payment anyway, but it likely won’t be a single day in jail. Usually it is quite a bit longer. And you usually don’t have a choice of serving your time on your day off.

And might I suggest, if there is one place in the world you don’t want to go, it is jail (prison is worse, but jail can be a very eye-opening experience.) I’ve been there quite a few times as a guest, and I’d never want to be a resident.

A much better solution would be probation. Not a perfect solution, but far better than the slammer.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“Jail time is ridiculous. Some people, especially those in more precarious financial situations, can lose their jobs if they are forced to miss work. This is highly regressive. And will just fill jails up with normal people.”

I guess that you’re unaware that if you’re in a “precarious financial situation” and unable to pay your fine you go to jail, huh? Whereas if you’ve got the bucks, you needn’t be so inconvenienced.

Talk about regressive.

“Fines are the best way to curb bad behaviour.”

Yeah, especially if you’ve money. I mean, what’s the point in having money if you can’t buy you way out, huh?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I think that jail time should always be an option in opposed to criminal fines. Back in the olden days (ie: if you watched Any Griffin for instance) it was always an option. You could either pay the fine for a traffic ticket or face jail instead of the fine. The idea is that if the laws are unreasonable the only thing paying fines will do is support more unreasonable laws. Those who believe the laws are unreasonable can go to jail instead which will tax our system instead of reward it for laws that people think are bad and unreasonable and if enough people believe that the laws are unreasonable enough people will go to jail instead of paying the fine which will cause politicians to reconsider the laws since the system isn’t being rewarded but taxed.

streetlight (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

In Colorado where I live, there currently is a major discussion about jail in lieu of a fine. It turns out the state constitution explicitly prohibits the imposition of jail time for failure to pay a debt and a fine is apparently considered a debt if someone can’t or won’s pay the fine. This is probably a response to the practice of debtors prisons. The discussion comes about because some not so well-off folks in a few counties were being jailed for 10 days for the lack of money to pay relatively small fines of a couple of hundred dollars. Of course the cost to the county for the jail time is higher than the fine. Perhaps unpaid community service would be a better choice. Anyway, today’s Denver Post (12/19/2013) has an editorial on this situation.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

a fine is apparently considered a debt if someone can’t or won’s pay the fine.

That’s the way it is where I live, for fines resulting from civil infractions (parking tickets, etc.) Although there is a threshold at which avoiding paying tickets becomes a jailable offense, that threshold is rather high — you have to rack up many individual tickets and refuse to pay them.

Otherwise, if you get a fine and don’t pay it by the deadline, it just gets shipped off to a collection agency like any other debt.

In my opinion, this seems proper and correct. Being sent to a collection agency is no picnic, and ultimately they can garnish wages, assets, etc., to recover the money (in addition to trashing your credit rating). This seems like punishment proportional to the crime to me.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

I am not suggesting to take away the rest of the process if the person both refuses to pay the fine and go to jail. Just give the option to go to jail instead of paying the fine. I am not suggesting to force someone who doesn’t pay the fine to go to jail anymore than they would currently be compelled to go to jail. I am just suggesting that an additional option should be offered.

“and ultimately they can garnish wages, assets, etc.”

Which kinda misses the point. If the laws (or fines) themselves are unreasonable and overreaching then paying a fine encourages more bad laws in opposed to discouraging them. If the laws are bad enough for enough people to be willing to go to jail instead of paying the fine then this will encourage politicians to reconsider the laws (or fines) and make them more reasonable. Otherwise most people will just pay the fines (or get their wages garnished or whatever) instead of going to jail. I am only saying that we should have an additional choice and the person faced with the fine can then decide what to do. What’s wrong with more choices?

“This seems like punishment proportional to the crime to me.”

This statement assumes the government has passed a reasonable law for the right reasons. If the laws (and penalties) are reasonable most people will simply pay the fine (or serve community service or whatever) and the system is self sustaining. If the laws are not reasonable and enough people disbelieve in them then the system is not self sustaining (more people will rather serve than pay the fine) and so politicians must rethink the laws and penalties.

To “streetlight”

“unpaid community service”

Perhaps that should also be an option to those that can’t pay the fine but believe what they did was wrong. But those that refuse to pay the fine because they think the fine is unreasonable or they believe the law is wrong should have the option of serving jail time instead. No one should be forced to support laws they don’t believe in. If enough people don’t believe in these laws jail could be seen as a form of protesting which would force politicians to reconsider the laws.

To yankinwaoz

“A much better solution would be probation.”

This is an interesting proposal. On the plus side probation isn’t as bad as jail. On the negative side probation doesn’t tax the system very much and so there maybe a lot of incentive for government to impose excessive probation periods to encourage people who don’t believe in certain laws to just pay the fine anyways (since the government isn’t bearing a huge burden and the rewards against those that will just pay the fines exceed the minor burdens that the government incurs against those that serve probation). Perhaps the option of either probation or a shorter jail period.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

On the negative side probation doesn’t tax the system very much and so there maybe a lot of incentive for government to impose excessive probation periods to encourage people who don’t believe in certain laws to just pay the fine anyways (since the government isn’t bearing a huge burden and the rewards against those that will just pay the fines exceed the minor burdens that the government incurs against those that serve probation).

Tell that to a probation officer. I suspect if infractions resulted in fine or probation, and most folks took probation, probation workers would quickly grind the system to a halt and demand shorter probations and/or less restrictions on probationers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

There can be a system where the person on probation stays home with a land line and a probation officer makes random calls throughout the day. They can hire a probation officer to spend the whole day making random calls to people who are on probation. Now, granted, precautions need to be taken to ensure that the phone calls aren’t forwarded elsewhere (and the person may claim that the phone or the phone line musta not been working) but we’re talking traffic violators here, not hardened criminals, so I don’t see the need to have a probation officer at the house of every traffic violator who accidentally crossed a red light or something.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Re:

(and of course if someone is caught cheating the probation system by, say, forwarding probation calls to their cell phone or elsewhere when their probation officer calls there should be sufficient punishments. Granted, hardened criminals may ignore those potential punishments because they are generally not the most intelligent people but if the potential punishments for evading the system are severe enough your average traffic violator will probably not attempt to break the law. Again, remember, these aren’t hardened criminals they are traffic violators, so we don’t need a ton of very expensive precautions though precautions and punishments should exist to those that are caught violating the probation system).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Re:

and if you still want to argue that sever punishments (along with other technical precautions of course) aren’t enough to discourage your average traffic violator from figuring a way out of probation (ie: call forwarding or whatever) you can sorta think of it as a test at school. If you cheat on a test chances are 9/10 you will not get caught. but if you do get caught the punishments are steep. and it’s not like your average student is a hardened criminal so most students generally don’t cheat. If a student is a repeat cheater chances are, after cheating ten times or so, they will eventually get caught once. and they only need to get caught once because the punishment is very steep and they are now flagged as a potential cheater by all teachers. Is the system perfect? No system is perfect. Cheating still happens and students still get away with it. But, by and large, it works.

Alternatively you could also have a more expensive system where each room has several cameras at several different angles during a test and the teacher can review the footage. But such costs aren’t generally necessary for average students because a repeat cheater will eventually get caught at least once (which is all that’s needed) and so many schools don’t (yet) have cameras everywhere during a test.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Fines are ok, the issue I see is how the money collected from fines is used.

It should not be used to pay for salaries or equipment given to the ones issuing the citations. The incentive to give a citation should be to make the roads safer not to get a new patrol car.

The money should only be used to help stop the problems that caused the citation.
Driver education, road signs, better traffic lights, road markings etc.

Anonymous Coward says:

Go The Aussies!

We have both longer yellows and an all red interval.
Yay us. The all red works! Particularly on Sat nights with the drunks…. everyone stopped and through they go.

Seems we are getting more red light cameras anyway – though ours do speeders as well at the same time.

Still reckon they are better putting the money in driver-ed and better, safer road designs – I seem to spend more time watching my speedo than the road… even with cruise on.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Go The Aussies!

I about crapped my pants yesterday in Reston, Virginia, at the intersection of Sunrise Valley Drive and Monroe Street. The Monroe light went red, and the Sunrise valley drive going westbound went green, and cars were starting into the intersection when some moron blew through the red light on Monroe going northbound. If anyone had punched it when the Sunrise Valley light went green, the accident would have been horrific because the guy that blew the light was doing well over 40 mph by my guesstimate. Idiots like that guy are what cause people to suggest red light cameras in the first place. That moron is a catastrophe waiting to happen.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re: Go The Aussies!

Idiots like that guy are what cause people to suggest red light cameras in the first place.

If the cameras caught everything after 1 second, very few tickets would have been generated and the folks like this would have gotten their due. The problem was that nearly 80% of the tickets generated were for folks who went through the light 1 second after it turned red, and 38% of them were before 0.25 seconds (note, it usually takes the red light about 0.1-0.2 seconds to reach full brightness.)

Then again, if they only caught a few violators, the cameras wouldn’t be worth it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Government and Fines

More a method of revenue generation rather than sense.

In order for them to be effective, fines need to scaled to the persons income. Otherwise that law becomes more a mechanism of Privilege than deterrent. Then it leads to a bureaucratic mentality that begins to fine and outlaw every damn thing they can to generate revenue or to toss malcontents into jail for convenience.

ChrisB (profile) says:

Re: Government and Fines

Totally unworkable. Explain how fines could be tied to income in a simple system. Does the cop ask my income when writing the ticket? Do I declare it? Or are you suggesting the absolutely ridiculous system where the federal government sends my income tax return to the municipal government? What a bureaucratic nightmare. Plus, all my data would be shuffled around to people who should not see it, and could potentially fall into the wrong hands.

The solution to big government is not bigger government.

streetlight (profile) says:

Re: Re: Government and Fines

IIRC, in Sweden, fines are based on ability to pay. Some time ago I read about some gazzillionaire being fined 10’s of thousands of dollars (maybe more?) for some traffic fine that perhaps a person of average wealth would be subject to hundreds of dollars or less in fine for the same thing. I’m not sure if the fine was based on total wealth or annual income, but apparently ability to pay the fine is decided by the justice system somehow.

madasahatter (profile) says:

Real Safety

T-bone accidents are usually very nasty but how common are they? Red light cameras may be solution in search of a problem. If safety is real reason there are other methods to increase safety by changing the light timings especially for yellow and red lights. Also, one should realize if human stupidity will be involved there is no way to prevent all accidents only reduce the rate. It does matter what method is used to reduce T-bone accidents they will never be completely eliminated.

The real reason for the cameras is revenue illegally obtained because often the ticket is issued to the owner not who was actually operating the vehicle. Vehicles do not commit traffic violations; people do. So ticketing owners without proof they were operating the vehicle is a violation of their rights.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Real Safety

I was almost t-boned by a car running a red just yesterday. Doesn’t speak to how common it is, but it happens.

There was something in the air yesterday — in addition to that incident, I witness two instances of people driving in the bike lane for over a half mile and one instance of someone driving on the sidewalk. People lose their minds in holiday traffic.

streetlight (profile) says:

Red Light interval in Both Directions

“….have a brief interval where lights in both directions are red, rather than switching simultaneously to red in one direction and green in the other.”

In my town this is implemented with about a two-second timing. The problem is that everyone knows this and many drivers run the red because they know those stopped at the red will not see green for at least two-seconds. Basically this interval has become an extended yellow. Also, in the downtown area on a very high traffic street the city put in its only RLC. It lasted about a year and was removed because of the incredible increase in rear-end collisions at that one intersection.

Mark Atwood (profile) says:

An example of a stupid business decision

if Redflex (the red light camera company) had actually installed and operated their red light cameras such that decreasing accidents was the #1 goal, and making money from fines was #2, their cameras would now be installed on every major intersection in the US, they would be making billions of dollars, and would have a great statistic about how many lives they’ve saved that they could feel proud of.

But instead they put revenue as the #1 goal, and actually performing the service promised at #2. Now they are just making a handful of millions, their revenue is shrinking, and there is an excellent statistical case that they been killing people.

If I was an investor, I would be calling for the heads of their executive staff.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: An example of a stupid business decision

Indeed. This is something that escapes lots of business (especially businesses that take VC money). Making your goal to deliver what you promise in an excellent way is the only way to maximize revenue in the long term. Making your goal to maximize revenue will accomplish that in the short term, but at the cost of long term revenue.

yankinwaoz (profile) says:

Make safer intersections!

A lot of this red light camera stuff is moot. The same idiots that run red lights can just as easily run a stop sign.

If public safety is the justification for the cameras, then a better solution would be roundabouts. Collisions in roundabouts are usually side-to-side, not T-Bones. You can even engineer a roundabout with a light. Roundabouts are also much more efficient and less polluting too.

But most drivers in the US are too stupid to use them. In my hometown (Santa Barbara) they installed a large roundabout (Large for California) at a 5-way intersection (Milpas, Hwy 101 ramps, and Carp. St. I’ve driven all over the world. Not a problem. But that intersection scares the hell out of me. People either come to a screeching halt and freeze with paralysis. Or they just blow through it not yielding to anything. Except for me, I’ve never seen anyone signal going out, which I think is a nice courtesy to others.

If you want a good laugh: In Long Beach on Highway 1 there is a large roundabout (The Los Alamitos Circle). Stand there and watch the cars navigate it. You will either want to weep in shame, or laugh. or shoot all of the other drivers. I really wish the DMV would recall all Cal. driver’s licenses and only reissue after you learned how to safely transverse a traffic circle.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Make safer intersections!

I must be stupid. I loathe traffic circles. They scare the holy crap out of me, and multi-lane circles can be incredibly confusing. Perhaps better signage on the way to it would help, so you can know in advance which lane you should be in.

But I won’t inflict my confusion on others. I’ll drive miles out of my way if it lets me avoid a multi-lane traffic circle.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Make safer intersections!

only reissue after you learned how to safely transverse a traffic circle

Maybe this is the core problem with traffic circles: nobody is taught how to do this. Every other traffic control method is pretty self-evident once you learn what the colors of the lights and shapes of the signs mean.

Traffic circles are the opposite of self-evident. They require training, and no such training is available, so far as I’m aware.

Henry (profile) says:

California tickets - many can be ignored

For anyone who got a ticket in California, here’s two ways many California red light cam tickets can be beat:

1. Check to see if it is a Snitch Ticket, the fake/phishing camera tickets California police send out to bluff car owners into ID’ing the actual driver. Snitch Tickets say, at the top, “Courtesy Notice-This is not a ticket,” and you can ignore them! Skeptical? Google: Snitch Ticket.

2. Were you in the LA area? Even a REAL red light camera ticket from ANY city (or the sheriff) in LA County can be ignored, as the LA courts do not report ignored camera tickets to the DMV. This was revealed in LA Times articles in 2011. Skeptical? Google: Red light camera no consequence.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: California tickets - many can be ignored

For anyone who got a ticket in California, here’s two ways many California red light cam tickets can be beat:

Oh, there are a lot more reasons than those.

Be very careful about ignoring tickets anywhere outside of LA county though…

Best advice ever: “Get a lawyer who specializes in Traffic Court.” Most of them are relatively cheap (~$100 total) and they are very familiar with the system. Check with friends for recommendations, and a lot of these lawyers have good advice on websites on how to proceed. The good ones will review the evidence first before taking the case (and can offer you advice if you decide to fight it by yourself.)

John85851 (profile) says:

Why not look at the cause of the traffic instead

Ah, yes, the old idea of using a simple fix to a complex problem. Instead of using red light cameras (or even police officers on the corner), why aren’t we asking why people are running the lights. Is there too much traffic for the road? Are the lights taking too long to cycle and people are getting impatient, etc?
But, it’s much easier to install a red light camera than to redesign the road to deal with the traffic.

When I commute home, there are sections of the road with 4 traffic lights within 2 miles ans stretches of road with no light. Can anyone guess what happens at rush hour? Traffic from one light backs up through the other light, yet traffic completely breaks up in the open stretch of road. My unscientific conclusion: traffic lights cause traffic, which causes people to get impatient, which causes people to run red lights. Therefore, the solution is to figure out how to do away with the traffic lights.

Anonymous Coward says:

jail time v. fines

To all those arguing about the cost of the fines, recognize that for many of us it’s the prospect of losing your license that’s the real problem. I know that in some states automated infractions (RLCs, speed cameras, etc.) don’t go against your driving record but in Oregon they do. Losing my license would mean losing my job and would be financially devastating to me and my family and that happens at as few as three infractions. Given how tricky and aggressive these predatory corporations are at generating revenue, three infractions is not a difficult thing to attain.

I’m all in favor of traffic safety, but automated law enforcement is a step on the road to totalitarianism we should assiduously avoid.

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