Red light cameras are good policy gone wrong

Red light cameras have been deployed around the country to great effect, reducing crashes dramatically in New York City and Washington, DC. Given these successes in the East, it was natural for San Rafael to give them a try. But police said they were ineffective at reducing crashes, and that they cost more than they took in, so the city recently ditched them. Given state law in California, the results in San Rafael start to make some sense.

Best practice: red light cameras

Traditional traffic enforcement is meant to be punitive. Police can’t be everywhere, so, to change behavior, any violation caught needs to be punishing and painful. As a result, California has extremely high fines for red light violations: a minimum of $489.

When a city switches on red light cameras, they generally try to limit them to key intersections. This ensures that most dangerous violations are caught, even if other violations at less important or less dangerous intersections are missed.

Psychologically, this is not effective, as it does not create a culture where traffic violations are simply not done. Serial red light runners will continue to do so wherever they like, just avoiding the two or three intersections where they know they’ll get caught. Research finds dummy cameras, which flash a light but take no picture, are effective at stopping red light running, a strong indicator that running lights is often a conscious decision.

To change behavior, one must apply a little force consistently, not a lot of force inconsistently. Red light cameras, when seen in this light, don’t do a very good job. They should be ubiquitous and cheap, with a relatively low-dollar ticket – maybe just $150 – that hits a driver for every red light run.

California’s red light ticket minimum means ubiquitous tickets would add up rapidly. As it is, just one $489 ticket can be half of someone’s take-home pay for the month, or worse. It’s unjust to use such a painful instrument to change behavior city-wide, even if the end of crashes prevented is noble.

As well, the high ticket fine opens cities up to criticism that traffic enforcement is simply a money grab, a politically toxic accusation that could kill any such comprehensive enforcement.

San Rafael’s experience

Without the flexibility to catch red light runners every time, San Rafael’s experience with cameras was a poor one. Though a 2012 grand jury report found crashes declined by 12 percent up to that point, a police spokeswoman told me crashes increased by 1 fatality.

The managing company, Redflex, was also a political headache. The IJ’s Megan Hansen reported, “Redflex has been losing contracts ever since it came under fire early last year when news broke the company was being investigated for corrupt business practices, including bribery and secret meetings.” Red light cameras are never politically easy, and paying a potentially corrupt company hundreds of thousands in taxpayer funds and ticket fines just makes things worse.

Though traffic enforcement is vital to creating a safe environment for all road users, San Rafael should focus its efforts on street design rather than automated enforcement. Though the impulse among some may be to keep fines high, road safety advocates should advocate for laws that do the most good, not just the ones that feel right.

To that end, California should create a two-tier system of ticket enforcement: one with dramatically lower fines for comprehensive automated enforcement schemes, and one with the existing fines for the spot-checking enforcement schemes cities rely on today.

Though it’s unfortunate San Rafael did not get a good deal for its cameras, removing them was ultimately a response to bad state law. Perhaps one day the city will be able to install a system that changes how we think about traffic laws, but until then it’s probably best to just go without cameras altogether.

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About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

10 Responses to Red light cameras are good policy gone wrong

  1. rihallix says:

    An interesting piece with some good ideas. I would like to see red light and stop sign enforcement for bikes. At present compliance and enforcement in this area is preposterously low – and it is an accident waiting to happen.

    I just saw a documentary on my home town of Bristol where traffic enforcement has hundreds of CCTV traffic cameras – and someone simply watching CCTV in this central location can issue a ticket for a car parked inappropriately. With traffic having increased in the city the belief is that this is necessary to ensure free flow of traffic. However it is effectively amounts to a near zero tolerance policy that imposes too much on the city’s residents.

    Combined with the onerous policies of the mayor there, the flamboyant, red trousered Mayor Ferguson, one comes away believing that the city does not support motorists, or respect that car transportation is a critical part of delivering business and “economic vibrancy” to the local economy.

    • Dan Lyke says:

      The interesting thing to me about the complaints about bikes and stop sign compliance is that the studies I’ve seen (and, yes, I can dig through cites if necessary) show that cyclist compliance tends to be sub 10%, but motor vehicle driver compliance is still sub 25%. So in either case, a supermajority of vehicle operators aren’t complying with the law.

      (This is particularly sensitive to me, as a cyclist, because I’ve been hit from behind by a driver when I stopped at a stop sign. On my bicycle, the only defense I have against cars is mobility.)

      But the fact that we all gleefully bend or ignore the rules suggests that, as dw observes below, that we’d be better served by changing the rules or the geometry of our intersections. In the case of many stop signed intersections we’d probably do a heck of a lot better removing signs and narrowing the road substantially, and in the case of signal lights in which we practice rolling right turns, we’re probably usually better off with traffic circles.

      Having said all of that, I do think that automated enforcement coupled with changing the fine structure so that fines aren’t completely devastating is a good idea. That automation should also not have any incentive to the manufacturer based on enforcement rate, and the fees collected from violations should also be centralized and re-disbursed in a way that doesn’t encourage the “gotcha” behaviors that have been so prevalent and given traffic cameras such a bad name.

    • John Murphy says:

      I would like to see red light and stop sign enforcement for bikes.

      Without implying that this is not a worthy goal – what is your motivation for this desire?

      • rihallix says:

        #1 Safety. #2 Adherence to traffic laws – we can’t treat laws like a gray area… when one particular group fails to comply it’s a concern and a signal that some remediating action is required.

        This said, I’m increasingly coming to a conclusion that 4-way stops may not work. Although I know others who are not I am a big fan of roundabouts as they keep traffic (bikes and cars) moving smoothly and avoid needless braking and acceleration – which wastes energy & causes emissions.

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  3. dw says:

    I’m a supporter of sensible laws and 100% enforcement, but red light cameras combined with the laws we have are just nonsense. Agreed with Edmondson.

    Over 90% of tickets issued by red light cameras are for rolling right turns on legal “right after stop”. Such turns should be legal in the first place by default, at about 5 MPH. A “slow yield”.

    The essence of a ticket trap is a common situation which is near-obviously safe for some driving behavior, but a broader net is cast with no real immediate warning. The red light camera as is ordinarily used in America is the most common of such traps. We all know it’s safe to roll right turns at red lights when no one is coming and right turns are allowed. We all do it, some of us 50 times per day.

    If the red light camera were there to detect only straight on running of the red, after a normally long yellow, no one would complain, except for the camera company and the politicians hoping for windfall income. They could even charge $450 for the ticket, and most of us would cheer. We don’t like that kind of dangerous behavior.

    • Alai says:

      “Rolling right turns” have resulted in fatal accidents, when the motorist is looking left to see if there’s a car coming his way, while turning right, and squashes an old lady. I don’t think it would be beneficial to make that legal. We already have situations where these cases are not prosecuted because of a lack of evidence of lawbreaking– making rolling right turns legal would only make it even more difficult.

    • John Murphy says:

      Over 90% of tickets issued by red light cameras are for rolling right turns on legal “right after stop”.

      By definition, if you rolled the right turn you didn’t “stop”

      Such turns should be legal in the first place by default, at about 5 MPH. A “slow yield”.

      Why? Statistics have shown that right turn on red without stop is a key cause of pedestrian injury/fatality accidents. That’s why the law is “right after stop”. The primary worry of a driver making a right turn is “is there a car coming from my left who will kill me”, and the lack of a stop reduces the time that said driver puts into “is there a pedestrian to might right who I might kill”

      • dw says:

        “Statistics have shown that right turn on red without stop is a key cause of pedestrian injury/fatality accidents. ”

        Here’s what I’ve observed.

        1. Urban legal pedestrians are most likely to die when a vehicle is turning, either left or right, with a _green_ light. With trucks and buses, the ped goes under the rear wheel. With cars, the collision is head on, with the driver actually seeing the ped at the last moment, but the car is traveling at a speed which doesn’t allow stopping or dodging.

        2. Suburban pedestrians are most likely to die in a crosswalk which is not aligned with any stop sign or stop light.

        The problem of not looking right to turn right does not go away even if the driver stops. Crucial to preventing such collisions is the pedestrian participation in their own safety, and not stepping off the curb into the path of a car, _even if the car stops_. Bicycle riders, in contrast to pedestrians, are typically much better at actually interacting with drivers in such contexts.

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