Starting next month, drivers in Miami will no longer have to hold their breath when passing under a yellow light, now that the city council has voted to end its red-light-camera program. In last year’s elections, Francis Suarez, the successful candidate for mayor, made a campaign promise to cancel the city’s 2010 contract with American Traffic Solutions, arguing that the cameras hurt residents with excessively high fines but didn’t make the roads any safer. Other localities would be wise to follow Miami’s lead and scrap their cameras.
Red-light cameras are touted by their promoters –– predominantly camera manufacturers and law-enforcement agencies, which profit from them –– as a way to make America’s roads safer. For local officials, it sounds like a win-win: More money for the government and safer streets for everyone. But the data tell a different story: These cameras have actually led to an increase in motor-vehicle accidents in many cities, since drivers either speed up or slam on the brakes at yellow lights, hoping to avoid a ticket.
A 2016 report from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles found that intersections with red-light cameras saw increases in nearly every type of accident in the years since the cameras were installed. Rear-end crashes went up 11.41 percent, angle crashes went up 6.42 percent, and crashes involving injuries went up 9.34 percent. Fatalities from accidents doubled.
Similar trends can be seen across the nation. Cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., have all seen increases in crashes at intersections where red-light cameras have been installed. In Los Angeles, the number of accidents increased at 20 of the 32 camera-equipped intersections. Three other intersections saw accident numbers remain the same, and only nine saw a decrease.
Sometimes the cameras help reduce one type of accident but increase another. In Chicago, the city with the most red-light cameras, the cameras may have lowered the number of T-bone (broadside) collisions by 15 percent, but the number of injury-causing rear-end accidents went up by 22 percent. One could argue that T-bone collisions are often more dangerous than rear-end crashes, but the most recent data from Illinois’s Department of Transportation show an increase in traffic fatalities in Cook County, which contains Chicago, despite the ubiquity of these cameras.
Even though the perceived safety benefits have been disproven wherever these cameras have been tried, some in government defend them as revenue-raisers for cities strapped for cash. This line of thinking is perverse and backward. Cities shouldn’t be able to extort money out of a resident who passes under a light right as it turns from yellow to red. If the light in the other direction has yet to turn green, that driver is putting nobody in harm’s way. This is essentially another tax imposed by cities on their residents, and a highly unfair and regressive one.
In Miami, officials expected to collect $10.5 million during the current fiscal year on citations from the cameras. Of that, $4.4 million would go to American Traffic Solutions and the rest to the city coffers. That money will vanish when the city and American Traffic Solutions end their contract. But, as Suarez put it on Twitter, “It is necessary to defend #Miami’s most vulnerable residents from continuing to be overburdened by these excessive fines.”
In Chicago, officials were caught speeding up yellow lights so they would turn red quicker than the city’s minimum of three seconds.
Cities should instead consider stationing law-enforcement officers near dangerous intersections and allow them the discretion to pull over those who are truly driving in a dangerous manner, instead of simply ticketing every driver who has the misfortune of passing under a light as it turns from yellow to red. If someone does run a red light and cause an accident, witnesses can corroborate the story and proper charges can be brought.
Some cities have gotten especially carried away with their revenue-raising ambitions. In Chicago, officials were caught speeding up yellow lights so they would turn red quicker than the city’s minimum of three seconds. That led to 77,000 additional tickets’ being written in 2014, creating $8 million in new revenue for the city. If it weren’t for inquiries from the Chicago Tribune and Inspector General Joseph Ferguson, citizens in the Windy City would have had no idea that this abuse was taking place.
The sketchy dealings of red-light-camera companies are not unique to Chicago. In Columbus, Ohio, the CEO of RedFlex, the city’s red-light-camera vendor, was charged with bribing city officials in exchange for a contract. Similar actions have reportedly taken place in 13 states throughout the U.S.
If the goal of red-light cameras is to make roads safer, they’ve been a complete and utter failure. All these cameras are good for is extorting money out of drivers without making the streets any safer.
— Dan King is an advocate for Young Voices and a journalist residing in Arlington, Va. He writes about free speech, mass surveillance, civil liberties, and LGBT issues. He can be found on Twitter @Kinger_Liberty.