Red-Light Cameras: Are They Legal? Do They Make Intersections Safer?

Larry Copeland of USA Today writes:

The national conversation about red-light cameras keeps simmering while their legal status grows murkier.

At the heart of the debate is this question: Do they save lives by reducing accidents or are they primarily a way for cities to raise money in an era of lagging tax revenue?

Copeland’s article specifically focuses on red-light cameras—a form of photo traffic enforcement—that are installed to take pictures of vehicles responsible for traffic violations in and around stoplights. This includes infractions such as failing to stop at the white line, rolling right turns, running red lights, etc. Over the last decade, use of red-light cameras has exploded from a paltry 25 communities in 2000 up to approximately 555 in 2012, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Two issues surround red-light cameras: First, are they legal? And second, do they make intersections safer?

Addressing the first issue is complicated. Constitutional questions around photo traffic enforcement depend on state and municipal statutes, which vary greatly across the U.S.

Nine states have banned red-light cameras, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GSHA). Colorado considered joining their company through Senate Bill 12-050, however the bill has been postponed indefinitely in the Senate Committee on Transportation. Meanwhile three of those states (Maine, Mississippi and West Virginia) went so far as to ban all “automated enforcement” systems. At the other end of the spectrum are states like Iowa that have no laws on the books and leave it up to municipalities to decide.

Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia lie in the middle with at least one red-light camera in place. There’s a host of additional regulations, ranging from fine limits to restricting the areas they can be used, that lawmakers have passed to customize their law enforcement. For example, last year Georgia lawmakers required that all intersections with red-light cameras make their yellow light signals at least four seconds long (many were reportedly three seconds long). Intersection infraction revenue decreased so dramatically that several cities removed their cameras. Virginia, a “Dillon Rule” state, requires local officials to get permission from the state legislation before installing red-light cameras.

For states and municipalities that have passed statutes, Copeland notes there have been conflicting rulings on the constitutionality of that legislation in states. In Florida a state judge ruled the state’s camera’s law is unconstitutional. The Washington State Supreme Court ruled local voters couldn’t ban red-light cameras by ballot initiative. A Missouri circuit judge in St. Louis ruled cameras are invalid without validation by the state legislature; then another St. Louis circuit judge reached the opposition conclusion a month later. In 2002, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that state legislators do have authority over municipal photo traffic enforcement.

So are they legal? There’s no clear-cut answer. Ultimately it depends on the state and municipality in question.

Addressing the second issue is also complicated because there is competing evidence in favor of, and opposed to, whether or not red-light cameras make intersections safer.

In Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Police Department recently announced it would not pursue red-light camera tickets in court after the city shut down its red-light camera program in 2011. As I wrote last August, the Los Angeles City Council recommended the city phase out the program. The City Council was influenced in large part by City Controller Wendy Gruel’s audit, which found that the cameras cost the city more money than they generate in revenue and fail to definitively improve public safety. Research conducted by KCBS/KCAL found that neighboring cities Huntington Beach, Montclaire, Upland, El Monte and Fullerton all discontinued their use of red-light cameras.

Policymakers weren’t the only ones fighting red-light cameras. Jay Beeber, a citizen filmmaker-turned activist, spearheaded the fight through Safer Streets L.A. Beeber explained his efforts last year in an interview with

As I wrote here last January, scrutiny of red-light cameras has raged in major Colorado metropolitan areas like Denver and Colorado Springs. In Denver, investigative reporters for four different media organizations (including The Denver Post, Fox 31 Denver, CBS 4 Denver and took swipes at the cameras finding that they appeared to disproportionally punish minor traffic violations. Separately, Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach and then-Interim Chief Peter Carey decided to end the city’s red-light camera pilot program saying it did not meet safety expectations.

On the other hand, IIHS has published research in support of red-light cameras for years, with one of the earliest examples on their website coming in the form of a 1998 Status Report on Oxnard, California (available here). More recently, a 2011 IIHS report entitled, Status Report, Special Issue: Red Light Running (available here) claims:

The rate of all fatal crashes at intersections with signals—not just red light running crashes—fell 14 percent in the camera cities and crept up 2 percent in the noncamera cities. In the camera cities, there were 17 percent fewer fatal crashes per capita at intersections with signals in 2004-08 than would have been expected. That translates into 159 people who are alive because of the automated enforcement programs.

Opponents of red-light cameras form a broad coalition composed of groups ranging from citizen activists to elected officials. Opponents argue that red-light cameras simply shift the behavior of drivers who might run a red light. Given the presence of a camera, drivers will either speed up or slam on the brakes to avoid a traffic violation. Opponents also argue that red-light cameras exist to simply raise revenue, and even more shockingly, sometimes manage to lose money. Instead, they support alternative safety measures like lengthening the time of yellow lights (as described in Georgia above).

So do red-light cameras make intersections safer? The jury is not out, however evidence from cities like Los Angeles, Denver and Colorado Springs suggest they don’t make intersections safer. Given drivers’ continued frustration with them, and governments’ continued desire for revenue, the issue is unlikely to go away any time soon.