Love or hate. That is the way it is with red light camera enforcement of traffic lights at intersections. The basic idea is to reduce the number of accidents at intersections caused by drivers running red lights, particularly serious accidents where one vehicle T bones another vehicle, by using cameras to photograph a person running a red light.
Nearly all of the red light camera systems operate the same way: The camera simultaneously photographs the rear of the car as it enters the intersection, showing the signal light on red, the license plate number and a second photo of the vehicle in the intersection with the signal light on red. A police officer reviews the photos and if the officer determines that a violation has occurred, the notice of violation, which includes the photos, is mailed to the first owner of record listed for the vehicle. The owner of the vehicle – based on the pictures – usually decides to pay the fine although he or she has the option to contest the charge in municipal court, which is handled as a non-moving violation. Nearly all of the ordinances just take a picture of the car relying on a presumption that the owner is responsible for the vehicle, which the owner may rebut in court. The process is very simple and virtually foolproof resulting in a high conviction rate.
Almost everyone agrees that running red lights is a serious problem, which is borne out by the statistics. While opponents argue that the automated red light traffic enforcement is not effective, statistics from highly reliable national, state and local sources show that the installation of red light cameras reduces serious accidents at traffic lights by 24%. A recent study by MODOT shows that where automated red light cameras are used, the number of right angle collisions were reduced by 45% while less serious read end collisions were increased by 14%. Studies in Kansas City, St. Louis and Columbia also show that safety was significantly improved by having automated red light camera enforcement. In Kansas City red-light crashes were down by 67%; St. Louis red light running violations were down 80%; and in Columbia red-light running crashes were cut in half.
Opponents also express concern about privacy issues. For persons running red lights on a public street, there is no right of privacy although safeguards should be taken to make sure photographs of non-violators are not retained. Proponents argue that if there is any intrusion into a person’s privacy it is minimal, which is fully justified by the reduction in serious accidents and the saving of lives.
Some opponents argue that the police should step up enforcement using more police officers. I can say from my years of experience in the enforcement of city ordinances, it is almost impossible for a police officer to catch a person running a red light using old-time conventional means where the officer observes the violation. Why? Well the reality is that the officer has to be in a position to see the same traffic light as the driver and be able to determine the exact moment the vehicle enters the intersection. This is no easy task, since the officer almost always needs to be behind the car entering the intersection. This does not work because the officer is usually in a marked police car – a dead give away – assuring that driving habits will be altered. Even if the officer observes the vehicle running a red light, a defense lawyer can easily pick apart the testimony of the officer based on simultaneous split second observations. Not so with a picture. In this time of limited resources it makes sense to utilize technology to improve safety while allowing police officers to perform other duties.
Arguments have also been made that municipalities are just using the ordinance to increase revenue. While an ordinance can be revenue neutral – like Springfield and Columbia - the revenue argument belies the fact that the use of automated red light cameras improves safety and also changes driving habits so that in the long run there will be fewer violations and less revenue. The reason Springfield’s system was revenue neutral was that the City and MoDOT, retimed the yellow times for all of the signals in Springfield, to conform to nationally recommended standards for timing of the yellow and all-red clearance intervals as provided by the Institute of Transportation Engineers. Springfield was able to reduce the number of vehicles running red lights at intersections where there were cameras by 36% and angle crashes by 25%. Citywide Springfield reduced angle crashes by 14% by following a comprehensive program that included photo cameras at some 13 high volume intersections. Rear end collisions at intersections with cameras showed an increase of 11.2% after installation of the cameras, however this was less than the 15.8% increase in rear end crashes at traffic lights citywide during the same time period while the overall number of crashes citywide decreased by 2.5%.
A case involving the City of Arnold held that Arnold’s automated red light camera ordinance was a valid exercise of the police power, although a Springfield ordinance was found to be invalid because it allowed an administrative officer to fine a person violating the ordinance instead of the Municipal Court. Springfield is now considering changing its process to bring it into compliance with state law. It would seem that the Arnold case settles the issues with respect to the validity of red light camera ordinances.
About 33 cities in Missouri have adopted red light camera ordinances. Usually there is significant opposition to these ordinances so if your city is considering adoption of a red light camera ordinance, you should expect opposition. Opponents of these ordinances continue to propose that red light cameras be either banned or saddled with onerous state controls and regulations, which for all intents and purposes, stop the systems. There are several bills in the 2011 legislative session, which would destroy the effectiveness of automated red light camera ordinances. The latest legislative effort is a proposal to mandate the minimum length of the interval for yellow lights to six seconds and to require photos from the front of the vehicle, which would identify the driver. Mandating the yellow light interval at 6 seconds for all signals equipped with red light enforcement cameras is micromanagement at its worst. Should the interval be 5 seconds, 6.1 seconds or some other number? The interval for yellow lights is a matter for professional traffic management that sets the length of the yellow lights with timing appropriate to the speed of approaching motorists. The yellow signal time should not be the same for a downtown signal with a 25 mph speed limit as it would be on an expressway with 45 mph speed limit.
All of the credible evidence shows that lives have been saved and will continue to be saved by using red light camera enforcement to reduce the running of red lights. Anyone who has been hit by a vehicle running a red light or watched while waiting at a green light as several cars whizz by running the red light must wonder why there is opposition to a cost efficient means to improve traffic safety.