Recent studies of the effects and usage of red light cameras at intersections in Texas brought the website The Newspaper to the same conclusion that many motorists have: it's about revenue.
First let's look at some numbers: according to the NHTSA there were 34,017 fatal crashes in 2008, with 11,179 of them - and more than 800,000 injuries - attributed to speeding. Most of those fatalities occurred somewhere other than the Interstate, where the speed limit was under 55 miles per hour. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there were 260,000 "vehicle incidents" from people running red lights, resulting in almost 900 deaths.
That's 11,179 deaths vs. 900 deaths. In 2006, when traffic fatalities were higher, speeding was deemed the number one cause of death for people ages four to 34.
Yet the IIHS reports that as of December, 2009 only 52 communities use speed cameras. The number of communities that use red light cameras: 442. Almost nine times as many cities employ red light cameras for the stated goal of increasing safety even though speeding appears to be far more deadly.
The problematic issue with red light cameras brings up the same word that describes the problem with speed cameras: "trap." In the case of Texas, short yellow light times have been found to make it more likely someone will enter the intersection after the red begins to glow - and therefore make it easier to issue ticket.
In one case the length of a yellow light in El Paso was shortened by just a four-tenths of a second and citations jumped by 132%. In another case, a yellow light at a 45-mph intersection in Houston that lasted 3.6 seconds rang up 341% more tickets than the yellow lights at other, similar 45-mph intersections.
Opponents of the red light cameras point to the fact that the duration of yellow lights in these scenarios is often less than the minimum durations proposed by national and state traffic engineering bodies. The Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) has a formula for determining how long a yellow light should stay illuminated, but intersections boasting red light cameras rarely follow those informal guidelines.
In 2003, a study by two researchers at the Texas Transportation Institute published a study that resulted in these findings: "(1) an increase of 0.5 to 1.5 s in yellow duration (such that it does not exceed 5.5 s) will decrease the frequency of red-light-running by at least 50 percent; (2) drivers do adapt to the increase in yellow duration; however, this adaptation does not undo the benefit of an increase in yellow duration; and (3) increasing a yellow interval that is shorter than that obtained from a proposed recommended practice published by the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) is likely to yield the greatest return (in terms of a reduced number of red-light violations) relative to the cost of retiming a yellow interval in the field."
In plainer English: increase the time of a yellow light, reduce the number of accidents. A one-second increase in the yellow light time duration resulted in a 40-percent reduction in crashes and a 53% drop in violations.
Never mind the fact that many red light cameras are not installed at the intersections with the highest accident rates. And never mind the fact that while cameras are said to capture up to 90% of their violations in the first second of a light going red, the large majority of accidents due to people running red lights happens five seconds after a light has turned red.
What makes it easy to ignore that fact is the huge amounts of money involved. In Coppell, one of those Texas towns studied, one red light camera issued $862,275 in tickets during a 1-year span. That's a healthy addition to the coffers in a town of just 39,000 people. Other, larger cities are known to reap millions from red light camera revenue.
And when it comes to short yellows, statistics and studies will pale in the face of the most important number of all: millions. Given the chance to address a municipal budget - and safety - the length of yellow lights is almost the same as a game of limbo: how low can you go?
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