Red-light cameras lead to fines, not to safety

Red-light cameras are becoming increasingly popular in Florida counties, even though it is still unclear how effective they are. Studies on whether cameras make intersections safer indicate that while the cameras increase tickets — and county revenue — they are not the best solution for improving traffic safety.

A study by the USF College of Public Health last year found that red-light cameras were linked to an increase in accidents and injuries. Researchers found that counties sometimes shortened yellow lights at intersections with cameras, giving drivers less time to react and increasing the number of tickets issued. Such cameras increase the number of rear-end collisions as drivers familiar with them will slam on their breaks at a yellow light to avoid a ticket.

The Texas Transportation Institute conducted a study of Texas intersections over three years and found that engineering improvements could reduce the frequency of red-light running. Simply increasing the visibility of traffic lights, for instance, created a 25-percent drop in violations.

It seems the best way to improve safety is to do the opposite of what the USF study found certain counties to be doing: increase the length of yellow lights. The Texas study found that shortening the yellow light by one second led to a 110 percent increase in the number of drivers running red lights. Increasing the minimum yellow light time by one second led to a 53-percent drop in violations and 40 percent fewer accidents.

Supporters of red-light cameras say that while rear-end collisions may increase, cameras will reduce the number of front-to-side collisions, which can cause more damage and injury. A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in California found that red-light cameras reduced the number of front-to-side collisions by 32 percent. The USF study disputed these findings, however, because the IIHS study included intersections without red-light cameras.

The Texas study also contradicts the IIHS study. It found that the vast majority of red-light violations occurred within one second of the light turning red. Drivers starting from a stop are unlikely to enter the intersection quickly enough to crash into most red-light runners. In fact, all but one of the side-to-front collisions in the Texas study occurred after the light was red for at least five seconds.

By shortening yellow lights, counties are essentially tricking unfamiliar drivers into running red lights, forcing first-time violators to pay a $100 fine.

Florida counties should be investing in reducing traffic accidents, not increasing revenue. Red-light cameras only penalize drivers for being a split second too late and are not the best way to improve traffic safety.