Insurance Study Supports Giving Red-Light Cameras the Green Light

Red-light cameras at intersections reduce related fatalities by about 25%, according to a new study.
Red-light cameras at intersections reduce related fatalities by about 25%, according to a new study.

Red-light cameras may be controversial, but -- according to a new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety -- they save lives. The analysis, released Tuesday, found that camera enforcement at city intersections cut the death toll from drivers running red lights by almost a quarter, on average.

The study is the first to examine red-light fatalities in multiple and diverse cities across the country, according to the institute, which is financed by the insurance industry. Previous research has consistently shown that red-light programs reduce violations, crashes and injuries, but until now there had been no widespread data to show the cameras' impact on serious crashes that claim lives, says Adrian Lund, the president of the institute.

Studying data from 14 cities, all with populations of 200,000 or more, researchers compared the rates of fatal crashes at intersections before and after these cities installed red-light cameras, and also compared the results to dozens of similarly sized cities without cameras. "We saw large reductions in fatality crashes at intersections," Lund says.

In fact, the researchers estimate that if all of the U.S.'s 99 large cities had been using red-light cameras during the five-year study period from 2004 to 2008, more than 800 deaths would have been prevented.

Red-Light Cameras Remain Controversial

Approximately 500 communities across the country currently use red-light cameras, up from only about 25 in 2000, according to the report.

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While national surveys indicate wide public support for the technology, the programs still remain somewhat controversial. Critics claim that some communities are using camera enforcement to raise revenue by issuing more tickets and argue that the programs violate drivers' privacy, Lund says.

But claims of high revenues at the expense of drivers are inaccurate, he says, citing a 2002 California State Auditor report that found that red-light cameras improve traffic safety, but generate little or no additional revenue for most local governments. That report, based on data from 1995 through 2001, found that red-light-camera programs lowered the number of crashes by 10% statewide, but operated on a break-even basis, or at a slight deficit, for most local governments.

Still, red-light running killed 676 people and injured an estimated 113,000 in 2009, according to the institute's newly released study. And most of the time, it's not the lawbreaking driver who pays the price: Other people, including passengers, pedestrians and bicyclists, made up nearly two-thirds of the deaths, the institute says.

Cameras Prevent Other Crashes, Too

In addition to reducing deaths from red-light violations, the cameras also reduce other types of fatal crashes at intersections, according to the report. The researchers theorize that drivers may be more cautious, in general, when they know cameras are around.

The report includes profiles of a number of victims, including 3-year-old Marcus May-Cook, from Lansing, Mich, who died two days after the car in which he was a passenger was broadsided by an unlicensed teenage driver who had run a red light.

"Frankly, one of the things we wanted to do with the study is to bring the focus back to the real victims," Lund says. "The real victims are not the ones running red lights and getting tickets, but the ones getting injured and killed."

In a statement, Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices, called the study's findings are "welcome news." Red-light cameras should be included "in state safety toolboxes," she added.

"We have known for years that when the public sees a law being enforced, they will respect it and drive more safely. That has been true with drunk-driving and seat-belt laws, and it is also true with red-light cameras," Harsha said. "This new IIHS study leaves no doubt that red-light cameras are an effective enforcement tool and a key to intersection safety."