Do Red Light Cameras Really Save Lives?

| by Reason Foundation

A new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says red light cameras save lives.

Red light cameras saved 159 lives in 2004-08 in 14 of the biggest US cities, a new analysis by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows. Had cameras been operating during that period in all large cities, a total of 815 deaths would have been prevented.

"The cities that have the courage to use red light cameras despite the political backlash are saving lives," says Institute president Adrian Lund.

The Washington Post editorial board gloats:

Those findings will be discomfiting to the scofflaws and libertarians who have long believed they have a God-given right to run red lights without the nuisance of risking a fine. They have felt put upon that the government is somehow invading their privacy by training cameras on intersections or "profiting" from the resulting fines. Never mind that in the great majority of cases, the real victims are not the drivers who ignore the red lights; rather, they are the pedestrians, cyclists and drivers of other vehicles who are run over, rammed, maimed and killed by the red-light runners.

The rationale for red-light cameras is firmly grounded in common sense. Police can't be everywhere, and officers should not be diverted from high-crime areas to police every high-risk intersection. As practically anyone who travels in and around the District can see for themselves, drivers tend to decelerate and exercise caution in red-light and speed-camera zones - which are listed on the police department's Web site. The result: slower-moving traffic and fewer fatal accidents.

Gnashing their teeth at Big Brother's supposed intrusion, opponents of the cameras have argued that the cameras violate their privacy or that local governments use them simply to generate revenue. But there are plenty of examples of government levying fines to promote public safety - think of hunting violations, or unsafe job-site conditions - and there's no greater reason to impugn officials' motives in deploying the cameras than any in other areas of public safety administration.

Actually, the argument is that there's good evidence showing that lengthening yellow times is a far better way to prevent intersection accidents than red light cameras. It's more effective, and doesn't come with the creepy surveillance state vibe. Somehow, that doesn't seem as appealing a policy to city governments. Another reason we critics have impugned the motives of public officials is that several cities have been caught shortening yellow times at intersections after they've been outfitted with cameras. That would seem to be a pretty good indication of a government that values revenue more than safety.

There's nothing in the IIHS study about how many lives would be saved if the cities surveyed had lengthened their yellows instead of installing cameras. And over at the National Motorists Association, James Baxter argues that study's "lives saved" figures are also flawed.