Red Light Cameras: Money Makers -- AND Life Savers

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(Kate Hinds, Transportation Nation) The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) released a study today that says traffic cameras save lives -- despite the fact that many cities have deemed them too politically divisive to use.

To quote from the study: "Red light cameras saved 159 lives in 2004-08 in 14 of the biggest US cities...Had cameras been operating during that period in all large cities, a total of 815 deaths would have been prevented."

So why isn't the technology more widely adopted--particularly at a time when so many cash-strapped localities are slashing traffic-enforcement budgets?  Because opponents say cities are motivated by earning ticket revenues, not preventing accidents.

That sentiment was the driving force behind a Houston ballot measure last year, in which residents voted down that city's use of the cameras.  “They believed it wasn’t about safety, they believed it was about money, and they stood with us and they voted it,” said one man who helped organize the petition to put the issue on the ballot.  (That same man also said he felt like a "patriot" when he ran a red light.)

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

Of course, the cameras do make money--the Washington Post reported today that the cameras earned the District of Columbia $7.2 million in a little less than a year. But some towns are going the extra mile to convince residents: one California town has pledged to give whatever money they make off of the cameras to local charities.

Perhaps equally profitable is the industry that has sprung up to fight these tickets.  Put the search terms "red light cameras" into Google and you'll find dozens of websites and attorneys eager to help you battle these tickets--as well as a spray that claims to make your car "invisible" to the cameras. (Dealers needed!)

While you'd think this would be a slam-dunk for auto safety advocates, it's not a sure thing. The  IIHS has, in the recent past, provoked the ire of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for releasing a study that was critical of texting bans.  We reached out to LaHood's office to get his reaction to this IIHS study and will update this when we've heard back.

There is one downside to traffic cameras: the IIHSe study indicates that the cameras may increase rear-end collisions--one side effect of drivers slamming on the brakes after noticing the cameras.

You can find the full study here (pdf), or read a summary of the findings here.

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