For some, they represent a technological advancement in traffic enforcement, preventing traffic violations, making roads safer, and even saving lives. For others, they are a corrupt scheme, a dirty deal between local governments and lobbyists that screws motorists out of their money and threaten their constitutional rights. They are red light and speed cameras.
Red Light Camera Use in the US
Red light cameras were first brought to use in North America in New York City, in 1994. Since then, the use of red light cameras, as well as speed cameras, has expanded. There are now over 500 cities in the United States that use at least one form of automated traffic enforcement. However, the expansion has not been steady everywhere. The use of automated ticketing methods has come under fire, primarily from motorist groups. Some cities, including Albuquerque, Saint Louis, and San Diego, have ended their programs in recent years.
Supporters of Automated Traffic Enforcement
Many cities, however, are sticking by their red light camera programs. A recent report by the New York City Department of Transportation credits their program with a significant reduction in traffic incidents and injuries. Some studies, most notably a recent one conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, credit red light camera programs with saving lives. As the debate continues to rage on, and states and cities consider restricting or ending their automated ticketing programs, local groups concerned with safety in their communities often come to the defense of such programs.
Critics Have An Argument As Well
The most prominent critics of red light and speed camera programs are motorist groups. This includes, nationally, the National Motorists Association, and locally the Maryland Driver’s Alliance. Both groups have released materials highly critical of the programs. Objections to the cameras made by these groups generally include the following:
- The camera programs do not actually improve public safety, and they are primarily there to generate revenue at the expense of motorists
- They make traffic flow worse in already congested cities
- Motorist’s constitutional right is infringed upon, as without an officer to witness to the ticket, a fair trial cannot be provided
Additionally, some often more politically minded critics of red light and speed camera programs claim that the automated tickets disproportionately impact the poor. It was for this reason Rochester, New York recently ended their red light camera program.
Even worse, the city of Chicago was required to pay back refund nearly 400,000 red light ticket recipients as part of a settlement in a class action suit. It was found that the city violated motorists rights by failing to give a second notice after the violation and charging $100 late fees before the required 25-days allowed after determined liability.
Opposing Data Points
As is the case with many heated debates, those on either side of the issue point to different data points. Supporters of red light camera programs commonly point out that the cameras reduce right-angle crashes. Opponents will often point to studies that indicated that while right-angle crashes are reduced, other types of accidents actually increased. Motorists, fearful of receiving a ticket, may break abruptly, leading to a collision with the vehicle behind them. Some supporters maintain that while the overall number of accidents increase, right-angle collisions are more dangerous. Therefore, it is important to look at both the overall number of accidents and the number of injuries and fatalities before assessing whether or not these programs improve safety.
As is the case in many other cities, Baltimore’s red light and speed camera program has somewhat of a rocky history. The city, in response to reports of erroneous ticketing, shut down their program in 2013. It was reinstated in August 2017 and expanded in March 2018.
Map of locations of red light cameras installed in March of 2018 and all the accidents occurring at those intersections 6 months prior to installation and 6 months after installation.
We analyzed the occurrence of Baltimore accidents at intersections where red light cameras were recently installed and found that accidents within 100 feet of the location of red light and speed cameras actually increased slightly. For the six-month period before the expansion, 298 accidents were reported near automated ticketing locations. For the following six months, 308 accidents occurred at those same locations.
As far as traffic fatalities, it is hard to conclude that Baltimore’s red light cameras are saving lives. The rate of traffic-related fatalities in the City of Baltimore has been steadily declining in most recent years, regardless of how the City’s approach to automated traffic enforcement has changed.
Baltimore’s red light and speed cameras are also positioned fairly throughout the city, with respect to race and income level. There are 156 speed and red light cameras in 37 different Baltimore neighborhoods. Of those 37 neighborhoods, 65% are majority African American and 70% are majority low-income households. These numbers are similar to Baltimore neighborhoods as a whole, 64% of which are majority African American and 70% have a median household income that qualifies as low income. The neighborhoods without cameras follow a similar trend.
Map of location of all red light and speed cameras in Baltimore with demographic and income data as related to each Baltimore Neighborhood. Neighborhoods highlighted in pink are both low-income and majority minority neighborhoods, green is low income only, grey is majority minority neighborhoods, and blue means the neighborhoods are neither low income nor majority minority.
As is the case in most other cities, Baltimore officials site public safety as the reason for traffic cameras. Given claims made by the New York City Department of Transportation and other groups, there is evidence that the technology can improve public safety. However, in Baltimore’s recent experience, there is no evidence that the reinstatement of red light cameras causes safer roads.
Public policy often involves trade-offs. A common trade-off is the one between liberty and security. Groups supporting automated ticketing are often concerned with public safety, while groups opposing them are often concerned with motorist’s rights. Determining the right balance should be informed by data. Thus far, the experience in Baltimore calls into question the safety benefits of the cameras.