Red-light cameras fail to reduce crashes


By Erich Wagner (Image/Ashleigh Carter)

Additional red-light cameras could be going up at a pair of busy city intersections, but the presence of surveillance equipment thus far has done little to reduce automobile accidents at the two sites.

City and police officials cited crash reduction as a key reason for the measure when the first cameras went live in 2011 at the intersections of Duke and Walker streets as well as South Patrick and Gibbon streets. They again made the case for safety earlier this year, when pushing for more red-light cameras at those intersections emerged as part of City Manager Rashad Young’s draft budget.

The proposed cameras would cover lanes not yet under surveillance.

But statistics obtained by the Times through a Freedom of Information Act request indicate the cameras, at best, only temporarily improved safety at those two intersections.

According to the police department’s statistics, crashes at Duke and Walker streets fell from 15 to seven in the camera’s first year of operation. But authorities responded to 17 accidents in 2012 and then 18 in 2013.

A similar trend occurred at the intersection of South Patrick and Gibbon streets. Eight crashes occurred at the site in both 2010 and 2011 and that number fell to four in 2012. But — like at Duke and Walker — crashes spiked in 2013, up to 13 accidents.

Deputy Police Chief Eddie Reyes said the cameras are helping to reduce crashes, even if the statistics don’t bear that out.

“Unfortunately, what doesn’t help us … is that, as you know, this is a very transient region,” Reyes said. “Those of us who were born and raised here, we know [the lights] and risk spilling our drink to come to a complete stop. But because of the transient population, new people are just constantly coming through our city.”
He added that police know the cameras are working because they rarely issue tickets to multiple offenders, meaning drivers are learning not to press their luck. And these intersections are configured in a way that makes it difficult — if not impossible — for officers to ticket violators.

“We have them at traditional intersections where you can park a police car or a motorcycle,” Reyes said. “If you survey these intersections, it’s almost impossible to do human enforcement just because of the complexity of the intersection.”

John Bowman, a spokesman for the Wisconsin-based National Motorists Association, a driver advocacy group, said a spike in accidents are common following the installation of red-light cameras.

“You do typically see an initial decrease as people get a feel for how the cameras operate,” he said. “They don’t know what to expect so they’ll be pretty cautious. What tends to happen, though, is as time goes on, people get caught in a dilemma zone approaching the intersection … in that they don’t have enough distance to stop safely at the intersection but don’t have enough time to get through the intersection before the light turns red. So they panic, slam on the brakes and that can create a rear-end collision.”

Bowman said there are better ways to improve traffic safety at intersections that don’t involve cameras or stationing an officer at a corner to hand out tickets.

“Increasing yellow-light times is a very effective way to cut down on accidents and citations,” he said. “And there are other fixes, like making sure there is proper signage, making sure the signals are visible and synced up correctly. Those basic things can go a long way to improving intersection safety and are much more effective than cameras.”



  1. People who expect genuine safety improvements with red light cameras have not studied the history very well. Cameras rarely cause safety improvements over the long run, and often increase the crash rates at some of the intersections. Red light cameras are for revenue, not safety. Better engineering will almost always produce better safety results compared to red light cameras.

    But engineering for higher safety is not profitable, and cameras are profitable. Red light cameras should be banned in every state, as they are in many already.

    James C. Walker, Life Member-National Motorists Association

  2. “Those of us who were born and raised here, we know [the lights] and risk spilling our drink to come to a complete stop. ”

    That’s indicative of a yellow light that is timed too short. Normal deceleration is around 10 feet per second for each second of braking. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety studied this a number of years ago and found that a majority of drivers were uncomfortable braking at 15 FPS/s, which is what is required thanks to turning law enforcement into a for-profit scheme via red light cameras and short yellow lights. At 15 FPS/s, things indeed to slide off your seat and your drinks spill. When the Michigan State Police tested braking on late model police sedans, they achieved a maximum rate of 23 FPS/s, which is a full-tilt panic stop.

    If local officials are indeed motivated by safety, they will properly time their yellow lights so as to eliminate these dilemma zones. It costs no more than routine maintenance, but of course unlike the camera scheme returns no revenue. If the motivation is money, then local officials will use camera schemes and sub-par yellow times.

  3. Installing a camera where most of the violators are visitors is part of a good business plan to make money – the camera will never run out of new visitors to photograph, a visitor is less likely to contest the ticket, and those visitors don’t vote in town so cannot make a political stir, either. But this situation is not part of a good SAFETY plan, because if the violations do not stop, neither will the accidents – and the accident victims are likely to be your local residents.

  4. Don’t the nature of the crashes change, though? Pre-red light cameras, many crashes are side impacts whereas after more are rear end accidents. Which would you rather be in?

    I don’t mean to defend the abuse of red light cameras, which in numerous jurisdictions have been an excuse to shorten yellow lights or (worst of all) ignore complaints about mistimed equipment in order to preserve revenue, but the article left out an important difference between the scenarios that may have saved lives.

    • Editor’s note: Actually, according to the stats provided by the police department, the crashes did not shift toward rear-end collisions. In 2010 — the last full calendar year before the cameras came online — six of the 15 crashes at the intersection of Duke and Walker streets were rear-end collisions, with four same direction side-swipe accidents and only two incidents labeled as “angle” crashes. In 2013, seven of the 18 crashes were of the rear-end variety, with four sideswipes and five “angle” accidents.

      At S. Patrick and Gibbon streets, in 2010 there were four “angle” crashes, along with one rear-end crash and one sideswipe. Compare that with 2013, where seven “angle” accidents occurred, compared with three rear-end collisions and two sideswipes.

      • I stand corrected. Studies have shown that typically there was a change in the types of accidents but perhaps the particular layouts (or small sample size) of these intersections is why the shift didn’t happen.