Now ubiquitous in almost all major U.S. cities, red light cameras have become a widespread deterrent to those who enjoy cutting it close. While they are a superbly reliable source of tax income for the cities, they are not as effective at their stated purpose: reducing traffic accidents at intersections.
A comprehensive report conducted by the Federal Highway Administration found that the presence of red light cameras at traffic intersections increased the likelihood of rear-end crashes by 14.9 percent and the number of injuries in traffic intersections by 24 percent. Red light cameras also do little to prevent “T-bone” accidents, where the side of one vehicle is impacted by the front or rear of another vehicle, as those accidents often occur when the driver is not paying attention, and not simply disregarding a red light.
Far more clear than the cameras’ benefits to drivers’ safety is their benefits to local governments’ purses. In many cities, to call red light camera ticketing a for-profit business would be too generous—the practice bears more resemblance to a racket, one in which the revenue generated by the cameras takes priority over the safety of the drivers.
In Fort Worth, Texas, red light cameras installed throughout the city produce more than $23 million in revenue annually. In addition, a CBS Tampa/St. Petersburg investigation found that red light cameras generated more than $100 million in revenue last year in about 70 Florida communities.
But drivers will usually adapt to the costly surveillance by becoming much more abrupt in their use of the brake pedal. In Florida, when revenue began to drop off, state and local transportation officials decided to remedy the problem by “reducing yellow light times at various intersections below federal guidelines and without issuing any warnings to unsuspecting motorists,” according to the CBS Tampa report.
Never mind the fact that longer yellow light intervals have been proven to decrease red light violations, and thus leading to fewer accidents at intersections. In Tampa alone, hundreds of drivers have received tickets just because a yellow light at a busy intersection was reduced from the state minimum of 4.5 seconds to 3 seconds. At least one fatality—a woman in Hernando County, Fla. hit by a car running a red light—is directly attributable to the surreptitiously shortened yellow light.
When local transportation authorities increase yellow light times, the intersections become safer, making red light cameras unprofitable. Some municipalities choose the longer yellow lights and the well being of motorists over the ticket earnings. Several towns in Georgia cancelled their red light camera programs after the state amended the law to add an extra second to the yellow light because the cameras were no longer profitable. But all too often we find that it is the latter concern that takes precedent.
Red light cameras throughout the country compel citizens to develop dangerously hard breaking habits or otherwise drain their wallets. In exchange for submitting to this stealthy tax, however, Americans receive more hazardous intersections. The practice doesn’t seem entirely ethical. But given the debt crises faced by many states, governments can’t afford to be so scrupulous about where they get their revenue.
This piece has been updated to include the correct link to the report on the presence of red light cameras at traffic intersections.