Red light running

Camera enforcement works to curb this dangerous behavior.

Red light cameras are an effective way to discourage red light running.

Enforcement is the best way to get people to comply with any law, but it’s impossible for police to be at every intersection. Cameras can fill the void.

An Institute study comparing large cities with red light cameras to those without found the devices reduced the fatal red light running crash rate by 21 percent and the rate of all types of fatal crashes at signalized intersections by 14 percent.

Cameras don’t violate privacy. There’s no reason to expect privacy on a public road. Driving is a regulated activity, and people who obtain licenses agree to abide by certain rules.

Red light cameras are a mechanism to catch people who break those rules, just like traditional enforcement.

Proper signal timing makes intersections safer. Adequate yellow time reduces red light running and leads to fewer crashes.

Red light cameras reduce injury crashes in Chicago

Red light cameras in Chicago have reduced injury crashes by 10 percent and angle injury crashes by 19 percent, a recent analysis of one of the biggest automated enforcement programs in the country shows.

Researchers from Northwestern University conducted the study for the city. They examined 340 approaches at intersections where cameras were installed and looked at the number of crashes before and after the cameras were turned on.

By using the number at 236 similar approaches without red light cameras in the city as a control, they estimated the difference in the number of crashes at camera intersections after the cameras were activated with the number that would have been expected without cameras.

The researchers used changes in crashes in neighboring towns to account for potential spillover effects at Chicago intersections without cameras. Red light cameras in some cases have been shown to have safety benefits across a city, even at intersections without cameras.

Along with the decrease in angle injury crashes and overall injury crashes, the researchers found a 14 percent increase in rear end injury crashes at intersections with cameras.

Such increases are sometimes observed when cameras are installed, as more drivers stop to avoid a ticket. However, such rear end intersection crashes tend to be far less severe than the angle crashes the cameras are designed to prevent.

The study also looked at violations at 152 of the camera equipped intersections and found that red light camera violations decreased over time. However, the violation analysis didn’t include information from noncamera intersections, so it isn’t clear whether the decline was due to the presence of cameras or not.

The Chicago study is just the latest to confirm that red light cameras improve safety. A 2016 IIHS study comparing large cities with red light cameras to those without found the devices reduced the fatal red light running crash rate by 21 percent and the rate of all types of fatal crashes at signalized intersections by 14 percent.

Despite this benefit, automated enforcement remains controversial. Many view it primarily as a tool for municipalities to raise revenue, rather than as a safety measure.

As part of their study, the Northwestern researchers interviewed both local and national stakeholders to gauge their opinions about the red light cameras. IIHS was among the groups surveyed.

Although safety advocates and transportation experts viewed the program positively, opinions were more negative among stakeholders characterized by the authors as “community representatives,” a group that included aldermen and representatives of neighborhood organizations. Most believed the cameras’ purpose was to generate revenue.

Although IIHS surveys have found widespread support for cameras among the general population (see “In the nation’s capital, solid support for automated enforcement,” April 25, 2013, and “Red light cameras see solid support in latest survey, “ July 19, 2011), the negative opinions cited in the report point to the need for better communication about the Chicago program’s purpose and greater transparency about the results.

Automated enforcement

December 2017

Automated enforcement refers to the use of cameras to enforce traffic safety laws. Although many states have laws explicitly authorizing automated enforcement, not all states where cameras are in use have such laws, nor are they always necessary.

A common type of automated enforcement program is for red light violations. The use of cameras to enforce speed limits is less common, but increasing. The technology is also used to catch drivers who block intersections or fail to stop at a stop sign, pay a toll, drive past a stopped school bus or disobey a railroad crossing signal.

The District of Columbia uses automated enforcement to ticket drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians. In states that have automated enforcement laws, some authorize enforcement statewide, while others permit use only in specified communities.

Many jurisdictions treat automated enforcement citations just like parking tickets in that the registered owner is liable. Similarly, just as parking tickets do not result in points or are not recorded on a driver’s record, many jurisdictions do not assess points or make a record of automated enforcement citations.

  • 422 communities have red light camera programs as of December 2017.
  • 142 communities have speed camera programs as of December 2017. This includes statewide work zone programs in Illinois, Maryland and Oregon.

1. Why is red light running a problem?

Red light runners cause hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands of injuries each year. In 2015, 771 people were killed and an estimated 137,000 were injured in crashes that involved red light running. Over half of those killed were pedestrians, bicyclists and people in other vehicles who were hit by the red light runners.

An Institute study of urban crashes found that those involving drivers who ran red lights, stop signs and other traffic controls were the most common type of crash (22 percent). Injuries occurred in 39 percent of the crashes in which motorists ran traffic controls.

2. How is red light running defined?

If a vehicle enters an intersection any time after the signal light has turned red, the driver has committed a violation. Motorists who are inadvertently in an intersection when the signal changes (waiting to turn left, for example) are not red light runners.

In locations where a right turn on red is permitted, drivers who fail to come to a complete stop before turning may be considered red light runners. Violations also include people turning right on red at intersections where doing so is prohibited.

3. Are right turn on red violations dangerous?

Yes, especially for pedestrians and bicyclists. Studies conducted after states first adopted right turn on red laws found that allowing right turns on red increased pedestrian and bicyclist collisions at intersections by over 43 percent. An analysis of intersection crashes in four states found that right turn on red crashes frequently involved pedestrians and bicyclists, and 93 percent of these crashes resulted in injuries to the pedestrians and bicyclists.

4. How often do drivers run red lights?

A study conducted during several months at five busy intersections in Fairfax, Va., prior to the use of red light cameras, found that, on average, a motorist ran a red light every 20 minutes at each intersection. During peak travel times, red light running was more frequent. An analysis of red light violation data from 19 intersections without red light cameras in four states found a violation rate of 3.2 per hour per intersection.

In a 2016 national telephone survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 93 percent of drivers said it’s unacceptable to go through a red light if it’s possible to stop safely, but 36 percent reported doing so in the past 30 days.

In a 2011 Institute survey in 14 large cities with long standing red light camera programs, 82 percent of drivers said they believed running red lights is a serious threat to their personal safety, and almost all (93 percent) said running red lights is unacceptable. Still, 7 percent of drivers said that they had driven through a light after it had turned red at least once in the past month.

5. Which drivers are most likely to run red lights?

A 1996 Institute study of red light runners at one Arlington, Va., intersection found that, as a group, they were younger and less likely to use safety belts and had poorer driving records than drivers who stopped for red lights. Red light runners were more than 3 times as likely to have multiple speeding convictions on their driver records.

Among drivers involved in 2015 fatal red light running multiple vehicle crashes, the red light runners were more likely than other drivers to be male, to be younger, and to have prior crashes or alcohol impaired driving convictions. The red light runners also were more likely to be speeding or alcohol impaired at the time of the crash and less likely to have a valid driver’s license.

6. What countermeasures help to reduce red light running?

Signalized intersections can be replaced altogether by roundabouts which have dramatically fewer injury crashes. However, it’s not feasible to replace every traffic light with a roundabout, and not every intersection is appropriate for a roundabout.

Providing adequate yellow signal time is important and can reduce crashes. Studies have shown that increasing yellow timing to values associated with guidelines published by the Institute of Transportation Engineers can significantly decrease the frequency of red light violations and reduce the risk of total crashes, injury crashes and right angle crashes.

Adjusting yellow signal time alone may not eliminate the need for enforcement of red light violations at some intersections. An Institute study conducted in Philadelphia evaluated effects on red light running of first lengthening yellow signal timing by about a second and then introducing red light cameras. While the longer yellow reduced red light violations by 36 percent, adding camera enforcement further cut red light running by another 96 percent.

7. How do red light cameras work?

Red light cameras automatically photograph vehicles that go through red lights. The cameras are connected to the traffic signal and to sensors that monitor traffic flow just before the crosswalk or stop line. The system continuously monitors the traffic signal, and the camera captures any vehicle that doesn’t stop during the red phase. Many red light camera programs provide motorists with grace periods of up to half a second after the light switches to red.

Depending on the particular technology, a series of photographs and/or a video clip shows the red light violator prior to entering the intersection on a red signal, as well as the vehicle’s progression through the intersection. Cameras record the date, time of day, time elapsed since the beginning of the red signal, vehicle speed and license plate. Tickets typically are mailed to owners of violating vehicles, based on a review of photographic evidence.

8. Do red light cameras reduce violations?

Yes. A series of IIHS studies in different communities found that red light violations are reduced significantly with cameras. Institute studies in Oxnard, Calif., and Fairfax, Va., reported reductions in red light violation rates of about 40 percent after the introduction of red light cameras.

In addition to the decrease in red light running at camera equipped sites, the effect carried over to nearby signalized intersections not equipped with red light cameras. An IIHS review of international red light camera studies concluded that cameras lower red light violations by 40-50 percent.

A more recent Institute study in Arlington, Va., also found significant reductions in red light violations at camera intersections one year after ticketing began. These reductions were greater the more time had passed since the light turned red, when violations are more likely to result in crashes.

Violations occurring at least a half second after the light turned red were 39 percent less likely than would have been expected without cameras. Violations occurring at least 1 second after were 48 percent less likely, and the odds of a violation occurring at least 1.5 seconds into the red phase fell 86 percent.

Spill over benefits were observed for nearby noncamera intersections on travel corridors with cameras and were not always significant, whereas violations increased at two noncamera intersections not on camera corridors. A larger, more widely publicized program likely is needed to achieve broad community wide effects.

9. Do red light cameras reduce crashes?

Yes. A 2016 Institute study comparing large cities with red light cameras to those without found the devices reduced the fatal red light running crash rate by 21 percent and the rate of all types of fatal crashes at signalized intersections by 14 percent.

The same study also looked at what happens when communities end the use of red light cameras. In 14 cities that shut down their programs during 2010-14, the fatal red light running crash rate was 30 percent higher than would have been expected if they had left the cameras on. The rate of fatal crashes at signalized intersections was 16 percent higher.

Previous IIHS research in Oxnard, Calif., found significant citywide crash reductions followed the introduction of red light cameras, and injury crashes at intersections with traffic signals were reduced by 29 percent. Front into side collisions, the crash type most closely associated with red light running at these intersections, declined by 32 percent overall, and front into side crashes involving injuries fell 68 percent.

An Institute review of international red light camera studies concluded that cameras reduce injury crashes by 25-30 percent. The Cochrane Collaboration, an international public health organization, reviewed 10 controlled before-after studies of red light camera effectiveness. Based on the most rigorous studies, there was an estimated 13-29 percent reduction in all types of injury crashes and a 24 percent reduction in right angle injury crashes.

10. Do red light cameras increase the risk of a rear end collision?

Some studies have reported that while red light cameras reduce front into side collisions and overall injury crashes, they can increase rear end crashes. However, such crashes tend to be much less severe than front into side crashes, so the net effect is positive.

A study sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration evaluated red light camera programs in seven cities. The study found that, overall, right angle crashes decreased by 25 percent while rear end collisions increased by 15 percent. Results showed a positive aggregate economic benefit of more than $18.5 million in the seven communities.

The authors concluded that the economic costs from the increase in rear end crashes were more than offset by the economic benefits from the decrease in right angle crashes targeted by red light cameras.

Not all studies have reported increases in rear end crashes. The review by the Cochrane Collaboration did not find a statistically significant change in rear end injury crashes.

11. Does someone review the photographs before tickets are issued?

Yes. It is standard practice for trained police officers or authorized civilian employees to review every picture to verify vehicle information and ensure the vehicle is in violation. A ticket is issued only if there is clear evidence the vehicle ran a red light.

12. Do red light camera tickets affect driving records or insurance rates?

In most states, red light camera citations are treated as civil offenses rather than moving violations. This means that there are no driver license points assessed and no insurance implications.

In some states, the law specifically prohibits insurers from considering red light camera citations in determining premiums or renewals. In a few states (Arizona, California, Oregon) red light camera citations are treated the same as citations issued by police officers doing traffic enforcement.

13. Do red light cameras violate motorists’ privacy?

No. Driving is a regulated activity on public roads. By obtaining a license, a motorist agrees to abide by certain rules, such as to obey traffic signals. Neither the law nor common sense suggests drivers should not be observed on the road or have their violations documented.

Red light camera systems can be designed to photograph only a vehicle’s rear license plate, not vehicle occupants, although in some places the law requires a photograph of the driver.

14. Can localities use red light cameras to cite violators without legislative authorization?

Before cameras may be used, state or local laws must authorize enforcement agencies to cite red light violators by mail. The legislation makes the vehicle owner responsible for the ticket. In most cases, this involves establishing a presumption that the registered owner is the vehicle driver at the time of the offense and providing a mechanism for vehicle owners to inform authorities if someone else was driving.

Another option is to treat violations captured by red light cameras as the equivalent of parking tickets. If, as in New York, red light camera violations are treated like parking citations, the law can make registered vehicle owners responsible without regard to who was driving at the time of the offense.

In either case, the locality must provide a process for appealing the ticket; grounds for appeal may include, for example, evidence that the vehicle has been stolen, that a warning sign was missing from the intersection when the authorizing law requires a sign, or that the vehicle moved into the intersection to make way for an emergency vehicle.

Red light cameras currently are authorized in about half of U.S. states.


15. How many communities use red light cameras?

The number of communities using red light cameras has increased dramatically since the first camera program was implemented in 1992 in New York City. During 2016, 458 U.S. communities were operating red light camera programs. Although new camera programs continued to be added in 2016, the total number of camera programs has declined since 2012 because more programs were discontinued than were initiated.

Commonly cited reasons for turning off cameras include: a reduction in camera citations, difficulty sustaining the financial viability of the program. For example, because fines from the camera citations are shared with state government or because violators don’t pay their fines and community opposition.

16. Does the American public support red light cameras?

Yes. Like other government policies and programs, camera enforcement requires acceptance and support among the public as well as elected officials. Some opponents of automated enforcement raise the “big brother” issue, and voters in some cities have rejected cameras.

Still, acceptance of cameras always has been strong. A 2011 Institute survey in 14 big cities with longstanding red light camera programs found that two-thirds of drivers support their use. A 2012 IIHS survey conducted in Washington, D.C., which has an extensive camera program, found that 87 percent of residents support red light cameras.

17. Is the objective of red light camera programs to generate revenue?

The primary purpose of photo enforcement should be to improve traffic safety by modifying driver behavior. Guidelines published in 2012 by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, funded by state departments of transportation and administered by the Transportation Research Board, recommend that money from citations be used to pay for the cameras, and any excess should go to other highway safety programs.

The guidelines also recommend conducting a public information campaign to explain the dangers of red light running and how the camera program will work before activating the cameras. Ideally, ticket revenue should decline over time as the cameras succeed in deterring would-be red light runners.

Trends in the number of US communities with red light camera programs

Major U.S. cities with red light cameras include Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C.





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