Red Light Cameras, Your Wallet and Your Safety

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Traffic Cameras-Backlash
Mel Evans/AP
By Robert McGarvey

The envelope quietly lands in your mailbox, but when you open it, there will be loud curses. That's because, across America, daily thousands of traffic citations triggered by red light and other cameras are issued and, in almost all cases, drivers are oblivious to the violations until the demand for cash arrives in the mailbox. And so the fight begins.

The sides could not be more starkly drawn. On the one side are motorists who, among those who have been ticketed, raise loud complaints about perceived unfairness of the traffic cameras that are proliferating across the nation. They add that -- in their mind -- the reality is that the cameras make roads more dangerous, not safer.

Morgan State University mathematics professor Jonathan Farley articulated this position: "Traffic cameras make roads more dangerous, because sometimes you really are going too fast to stop at the light. Braking suddenly can cause the guy behind you to crash into you." Farley's point: you speed toward an intersection, catch a glimpse of the cameras, know you are looking at a fine of at least $100, maybe over $500, depending upon the jurisdiction, so you slam on the brakes -- and good luck to anybody following in your lane.

On the other side are politicians -- primarily mayors of cash-strapped municipalities, some 400 of which currently have traffic cameras -- who cheer on the installation of the cameras, because, to them, the math is seductive. Every click of the flash means another $100, maybe much more, in the city coffers.

Other supporters said that in fact they believe cameras are making us safer drivers. Chicago lawyer Jeff Kroll -- who said he himself had gotten a $120 ticket for an incident involving a red light - defended the cameras. "Cameras act as a tremendous deterrent," he said. "People are more cautious. They are changing behavior."

Easy Questions, Tough Answers

Here is where the debate is framed. Are the cameras just a way to raise cash, a kind of sneaky taxation that, worse still, cause accidents? Or are the cameras a genuine contributor to road safety?

New Jersey illustrates the complexities. In the Garden State, there were cameras at 73 intersections in 24 towns and, in a five-year run, the cameras generated a staggering $156 million in fines. So why did New Jersey pull the plug on every red light camera in the state on Dec. 16? "Red light cameras don't improve safety," said state assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon, a leader of the effort to unplug the cameras. "It is unquestionable that the devices are all about raising money."

Perhaps more telling is the case of Charlotte, North Carolina, which installed cameras in 1998 and yanked them in 2006 because a state court ruled that 90 percent of revenues from red light cameras had to go to schools and the city could not meet that quota and pay the operating costs; as a result, Charlotte unplugged the cams.

Now the Charlotte Observer has analyzed traffic accident data, and it came to this conclusion: "Although the number of accidents per day remained about the same [after the cameras were unplugged], the percentage of accidents that resulted in injury increased after the cameras were removed - jumping from 24 precent to 33 percent." The conclusion, at least as far as some in North Carolina believe: the cameras reduced the number of accidents involving serious injury.

A Big Issue in Chicago

Ground zero for the red light camera debate may now be Chicago, where incumbent mayor (and onetime President Bill Clinton assistant) Rahm Emanuel faces an April 7 runoff for re-election and, said many, he was denied an outright win in a February election because he supports the cameras. Three of four of his opponents were anti-camera.

His opponent in the runoff is Cook County Commissioner Jesus Garcia, who is on record as anti-camera. He is quoted by Reuters saying: "It's one more way Chicagoans are pickpocketed every day."

Chicago has 174 red light cameras at intersections and another 144 speed cameras near schools and parks. Since 2003, they are believed to have brought in over $500 million in fines, although the city has not confirmed or denied that number.

A New Battleground

The Chicago evidence around cameras is confusingly mixed. In research performed for the Chicago Tribune by Texas A&M, it was found that the cameras had reduced right angle crashes that caused injury by 15 percent -- but there was a 22 percent jump in rear-end crashes caused by drivers slamming on brakes to avoid camera tickets.

So do cameras reduce traffic accidents or increase them? Do they improve road safety -- or worsen it? The maddening reality is: no one knows. What is known is that motorists who get tickets in the mail hate the cameras. Politicians whose town are awash with easy money from traffic cameras love them. And the twain are nowhere close to meeting.

One last thought: The number of red-light cameras nationwide is falling, The Associated Press reports, but the use of cameras to catch speeders is slowly rising, potentially signaling a new battleground.
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