Red light camera programs in 79 large U.S. cities saved nearly 1,300 lives through 2014, researchers from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have found. Shutting down such programs has cost lives, with the rate of fatal red-light-running crashes shooting up 30 percent in cities that have turned off cameras.
“Red light cameras are valuable enforcement tools that prevent many dangerous intersection crashes,” says IIHS President Adrian Lund, who will present the new research Thursday at a forum on red light cameras hosted by the Institute. “This study confirms that cameras reduce fatal crashes and for the first time quantifies the effect that ending these programs has on safety.”
Red-light-running crashes caused 709 deaths in 2014 and an estimated 126,000 injuries. Red light runners account for a minority of the people killed in such crashes. Most of those killed are occupants of other vehicles, passengers in the red-light-running vehicles, pedestrians or bicyclists.
Automated enforcement deters red light runners. While traditional police enforcement can help, there aren’t enough resources to station officers at every intersection. Cameras increase the odds that violators will get caught, and well-publicized camera programs discourage would-be violators from taking those odds.
Previous research has shown that red light camera enforcement leads to declines in red-light-running violations and crashes at camera-equipped intersections, as well as nearby spillover locations.
Although surveys have found strong support for red light cameras in communities that have them, opposition from a vocal minority has led some jurisdictions to shut off their cameras. While programs are still being launched in some places, the total number of communities with red light cameras fell to 467 in 2015 from a peak of 533 in 2012.
A 2011 IIHS study found that in large cities with red light camera programs during 2004-08, there were substantial decreases in the per capita rates of both fatal red-light-running crashes and fatal crashes of all types at intersections with traffic signals.
The new study updates that analysis, using a more rigorous design, a larger number of cities and a longer study period. It also looks at the effect of ending camera programs, something not previously studied.
IIHS researchers looked at the 57 cities of 200,000 or more people that activated cameras between 1992 and 2014 and didn’t shut them off. They compared the trends in annual per capita fatal crash rates in those cities with the trends in 33 cities that never had cameras. After accounting for the effects of population density and unemployment rates, the researchers found there were 21 percent fewer fatal red-light-running crashes per capita in cities with cameras than would have occurred without cameras and 14 percent fewer fatal crashes of all types at signalized intersections.
As expected, the cameras have their biggest effect on red-light-running crashes. However, the analysis shows they reduce other types of fatal intersection crashes as well. Drivers may be more cautious in general when they know there are cameras around. In addition, red-light-running fatalities may be undercounted.
When applied to all 57 cities, as well as 22 cities that started and ended camera programs, the lower intersection crash rate translates into 1,296 lives saved during the years the cameras were operational.
The second part of the study looked at 14 cities that ended their camera programs between 2010 and 2014. The researchers compared trends in annual crash rates in those cities with trends in crash rates in 29 cities in the same regions that continued their camera programs. The fatal red-light-running crash rate was 30 percent higher in cities that turned off cameras than it would have been if the cameras remained on. The rate of fatal crashes at signalized intersections was 16 percent higher.
The 16 percent increase translates into an estimated 63 deaths that would have been prevented in the 14 cities if they had not turned off their cameras.
“Debates over automated enforcement often center on the hassle of getting a ticket and paying a fine,” Lund says. “It’s important to remember that there are hundreds of people walking around who wouldn’t be here if not for red light cameras. Sadly, there are 63 families who are missing a loved one because these life-saving programs were canceled.”
Thursday’s forum was organized to support red light camera programs by focusing on best practices. Representatives of law enforcement and municipal and state governments, as well as highway safety advocates and researchers, are expected to attend.