Red Light Cameras—Safety Enhancer Or Revenue Inducer?

Since October of 2010, 37 red light cameras have been installed in the City of Yonkers at 16 intersections. These cameras are also known as “Intersection Safety Cameras.” The question I am addressing in this article is, do red light cameras actually improve safety by deterring red light violations, or is the true motivation behind these cameras to obtain revenue for the municipality?

As background, New York City has utilized red light cameras since 1993, (garnering close to 100 million dollars in revenue for the City in that 18 year period), and they are now installed throughout New York’s five boroughs, Nassau and Suffolk Counties, and Rochester. Across the United States, big cities including Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C, are now deploying these cameras.

Red light cameras automatically photograph vehicles as they pass through red lights. The camera is connected to the traffic signal and follows the vehicle before, during, and as it passes through the red light, purportedly getting a clear photo of the rear license plate when the transgression is complete. The photographs are reviewed by police officers to confirm that the infraction was committed. If so, the owner of the vehicle (which of course may not be the motorist who actually committed the violation) is sent a notice demanding payment of $50.00 by a certain date, with an additional $25.00 penalty for late response.

Only emergency vehicles including police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances are exempted from red light violations.

Back in May of 2009, the New York Times published an article entitled “Revenue Low, Yonkers Dreams Of Green From Red Light Cameras”, which made the motivation behind the cameras fairly apparent. In the article, a Yonkers City spokesman noted that Yonkers expected to have a budget shortfall of 100 million dollars in 2010, and was hoping to reap millions of dollars in revenue from the fines generated by the cameras. The revenue was to be split with a company called “American Traffic Solutions” (ATS), which was allegedly selected after a competitive bidding process to furnish, install, operate and maintain the cameras. In two recent articles by Phil Reisman of the Journal News, the first of which is entitled “Money Is The Motive For City’s Red-Light Cameras” on January 5, 2012, Mr. Reisman explores the relationship between Yonkers officials such as Mike Spano and Mayor Phil Amicone, and ATS. He points out that Spano was part of a lobbying firm, Patricia Lynch Associates, that was paid a whopping $400,000 to push the red light camera plan, and that ATS also made campaign contributions to both Spano and Amicone.

So the question remains, do the cameras increase safety or is this simply all about the money?

The Federal Highway Administration performed a study in 2005, which concluded that the intersection cameras reduced right angle accidents by 25%, along with the injuries from these accidents by 16%. However, the number of rear end collisions increased by 15% and injuries from rear end accidents went up by 24%. This makes sense, in that it is foreseeable that a driver about to go through a red light (when suddenly aware that he is on camera) will jam on his brakes, leading to collisions with drivers following too closely behind him.

The Insurance Institute For Highway Safety notes that in 2009, red light violations caused 676 deaths and approximately 130,000 injuries. Roughly 50% of these fatalities were pedestrians, bicyclists and occupants of motor vehicles who were struck by red light “runners.” The Institute also found that the most common type of city accidents were drivers who ran red lights and other traffic controls such as stop signs. A 2011 Institute study concluded that cities which installed red light cameras reduced the fatal red light collisions rate by 25% and deaths by 17%.

Contrast the Institute’s data with the fact that many municipalities have concluded that the cameras decrease safety. For example, in Georgia, five cities decided to stop using the cameras when they implemented a regulation that required longer yellow lights at intersections with the cameras, thus allowing drivers more time to stop. Reisman pointed out that a 2005 Washington Post study found that accidents at intersections with red light cameras increased 107% from 365 to 753 during a six year period, and deaths increased by 81%!

A 2002 nationwide survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) noted that 75% of motorists support red light cameras, and a 2011 Insurance Institute study of 14 U.S. cities found that 2 out of 3 drivers are in favor of them.

In my opinion, the evidence about safety of these cameras is at best, decidedly mixed, with strong evidence that rear end collision accidents increase when red light cameras are installed. Conversely, there is no gray area when it comes to the primary motivation, money. The better, cheaper, and safer solution might be to post police officers at select intersections (as is done in White Plains, NY for example) during substantial traffic hours. This alternative also accounts for the due process concerns of issuing violations to a vehicle, rather than an offending driver.

If you are charged with a crime or traffic infraction, contact the Westchester County Criminal Defense Lawyers online or toll free at (914) 428-7386 for a free initial consultation with an experienced defense attorney to review your case in detail and discuss all of your legal options.