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Just the facts: Red light cameras aid safety

By: James Hagadorn
September 1, 2014 Updated: September 1, 2014 at 7:54 am
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My friend Heidi was recently hit by a car. In a crosswalk, no less. The driver blew the light, and Heidi's surreal somersault began - hitting the hood, then the roof, and eventually the pavement. Next stop: the ER.

Blowing red lights is not uncommon: In some Colorado intersections it happens about every 10 minutes. It isn't usually because drivers are intoxicated, but because they're going too fast to stop, are on the phone, or are in a hurry.

You know the feeling - "I can make it".

Yet where photographic ticketing devices are present, drastically fewer such incidents occur per capita - both at the monitored signal and at nearby stoplights.

So why have Colorado lawmakers supported bills to ban red light cameras and photo radar systems? Are they trying to appease constituents, or are they privy to data that the rest of us don't know about?

They claim such systems jeopardize public safety, are aimed at generating municipal revenue or invade privacy. In some ways, such cameras do smack of Big Brother, and people understandably fear that successful programs will lead to even more monitoring. Seems like a slippery slope.

So I investigated - with a focus on photo red-light cameras, where there is abundant, statistically rigorous, peer-reviewed data available. In general, the data on the effectiveness of these cameras is nothing short of compelling - especially if you don't cherry-pick factoids to suit your position, as seems to happen with arguments used by proponents and opponents of such cameras.

Where such cameras have been employed in traffic management plans, they typically drastically reduce violations, injuries and fatalities.

The revenue they generate can be inconsequential, especially when compared to system installation and maintenance costs and the personnel and infrastructural costs required to achieve similar safety improvements. Their financial impact pales compared to the liability and "costs" of avoidable permanent injuries and fatalities.

But like speed violation cameras, red light cameras aren't a panacea. They're one tool in the suite of countermeasures used to make intersections safer. They're employed in sync with other traffic engineering solutions, such as extending the time yellow lights are illuminated. Like automated cameras at railroad crossings, red light cameras are optimally effective in accident-prone intersections where police monitoring isn't practical or where physical infrastructure can't easily be changed, such as by replacing an intersection with a roundabout.

But should safety become an inroad for government surveillance? It seems the Supreme Court and local courts have spoken to the heart of the issue. Driving on a public road does not afford Fourth Amendment privacy protections, largely because driving is a regulated activity that occurs in public, not in private. Because driving is a granted and agreed-upon privilege, municipalities may deter us from and cite us for breaking the law.

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Hagadorn is a scientist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Suggestions and comments are 
welcome at jwhagadorn@dmns.org.

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