Study: When Red Light Cameras Go Dark, Violations Skyrocket

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Houston Texas, is poised to become the second large city in America to turn off its red light cameras this summer, following Los Angeles.  The cities came to their decisions differently, but the outcome, if a study underway by the Texas Transportation Institute is any guide, will likely be the same:  there will be more people running red lights than did before there were any cameras in the first place.

Troy Walden, an associate research scientist at TTI, said a study of one typical town, which he wouldn't name because the study hasn't been released, showed that weekly red light violations decreased from 2,445 to 1,738 when red light cameras were installed.  But after they were removed, violations rose to 4,755.

"Once the red light cameras were inactive, we saw an increase of violations about twice as many as what you had seen" before the cameras were in place, Walden said in an interview with Transportation Nation.  Walden said he believed similar results would be seen in other cities that removed the cameras.

As of this summer, that list will include two of the largest cities in America, Houston and Los Angeles.

On a gut level,  it's  easy to hate red-light cameras at first blush -- the idea you can be caught, and fined by an electronic eye feels particularly odious.   In Los Angeles, the robotic transaction  would result in a ticket in your mailbox of  almost $500, and because of a vagary in California Law, it turned out the cameras were a money-losing proposition for the city.

In Houston, the situation is more complex -- the Mayor, Annise Parker, supports the cameras, but following a referendum to remove them and a complex legal dispute with the private contractor running the cameras, she said this week the cameras would go dark.

(Listen to the Marketplace version of this story here.)

"I’m very clear the cameras are going to go off," Parker said in a press conference this week. "I’m also very clear I believe in red light cameras. I think the vote was a mistake."

Safety studies show the cameras save lives -- more than 150 in a 5-year period in the fourteen biggest cities in the country,  according to Anne Fleming, a spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.   A TTI study earlier this summer found the most dangerous crashes declined by 32 percent.    Those crashes are the so-called "T-bone" crashes, which cause more injury and death than rear-end crashes, which may tick up after red light cameras are installed.

Fleming says she doesn't think Los Angeles and Houston are at the crest of a wave: " The opponents of red light cameras are extremely vocal.  They have decided that the people getting the tickets are the victims, not the people who are killed in red light running crashes."

She says some 540 localities still use the cameras.