Running a red light is a very dangerous thing to do. Red light cameras that photograph cars that do this are proliferating in many areas. They take a photo of offenders who are then cited and fined. But one study done in Houston finds that while they do reduce the number of people running red lights, they do not necessarily reduce the number of accidents.
During the past decade, over 438 U.S. municipalities, including 36 of the 50 most populous cities, have employed electronic monitoring programs in order to reduce the number of accidents. Red light camera programs specifically target drivers that run red lights.
Evidence clearly shows that camera programs are effective at decreasing the number of vehicles running red lights. In one study in Virginia, red light cameras reduced the number of total drivers running red lights by 67 percent.
However, cameras can have contradictory effects on traffic safety. Some drivers who would have otherwise continued to proceed through the intersection when the light is yellow or red will now attempt to stop. That means that the number of accidents caused by vehicles not stopping at a red light will likely decrease.
But the number of accidents from stopping at a red light – such as rear-end accidents – is likely to increase. That’s not an inconsequential side effect. Some drivers will attempt to stop, accepting a higher risk of a non-angle accident like getting rear-ended, in order to avoid the expected fine.
When the Houston cameras were removed, angle accidents increased by 26 percent. However, all other types of accidents decreased by 18 percent. Approximately one-third of all Houston intersection accidents are angle accidents. This suggests that the program’s drawbacks canceled out its benefits.
What this study shows is that far too many people tailgate, i.e., drive too close to the car in front based on the speed. When I slow down to stop because of a yellow light, I usually look in the mirror to see if the car behind may hit me and sometimes I edge forward a bit to give them more time to stop. If tailgating were reduced, then red light cameras would result in reduced accidents. Also, rear-end collisions are less likely to cause serious injury than getting broadsided.
One of the things that I would like to see more of are those signs by the roadside that tell you how fast you are traveling. Whenever I see them, I instinctively check my speed to make sure that I am not going too fast. Placing one of those signs right next to speed limit signs may help reduce speeding, another cause of accidents. Since these speed detector signs seem to be solar-powered, the maintenance costs should be low.