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Photocop: Common Sense to Save Lives

December 15, 2008 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
A new study from Texas confirms what Minnesotans already know, but have chosen not to take advantage of: Automated traffic signal enforcement systems at crash-prone intersections significantly reduce accidents, along with their heavy health and economic costs.

These devices, known as red-light cameras or the trade name PhotoCop, collect photographic evidence of vehicles running traffic signals. They allow authorities to enforce frequently flouted traffic laws at a small cost, leaving budget-strapped police departments free for other duties.

Red-light cameras are widely used in Europe and in parts of the United States - even in states like Texas that are well known for libertarian, anti-authoritarian sentiment. In the Lone Star State, 26 cities have placed them at a total of 268 intersections since 2003, and another 58 cities were considering doing so as of late August.

And the results? Overall crashes at monitored intersections in Texas declined 30 percent over a one-year period studied by Texas A&M University's Texas Transportation Institute. Even better, right-angle collisions, the "T-bone" crashes that can be most dangerous to life and limb, fell off by 43 percent. Rear-end accidents increased by 5 percent, probably because of drivers slamming on the brakes to avert photographed moving violations.

These findings closely mirrored those from other studies across the country, as well as the results of Minneapolis' brief experiment with PhotoCop in 2005 and '06. At the 12 Mill City intersections where the cameras were deployed, overall crashes were reduced 31 percent and T-bone collisions dropped nearly in half. 

But the program was derailed after 26,000 citations by a series of state court decisions that ruled this type of enforcement illegal under current Minnesota law. About 5,000 pending cases had to be dropped.

Fortunately, the state Legislature has the power to authorize the use of this life-saving traffic safety advancement. Unfortunately, in two straight sessions it has failed to pass bills to do so.

While this is regrettable, it is also understandable. A 2001 Federal Highway Administration (FWHA) study found that 56 percent of American drivers admitted to running red lights. Of course, scofflaws don't want to get caught in the act. And if nobody gets hurt, what's the problem?

Trouble is, too often people do get hurt, or even killed. The FWHA attributed as many as 176,000 injuries and 950 deaths every year to red-light violations, plus an annual economic loss of $14 billion. Those are costs we all pay in higher taxes and health insurance premiums.

In 2005, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 22 percent of all urban crashes were directly caused by drivers disobeying red lights.

These grim statistics won't sway those who insist on a "right" to break the law on public thoroughfares, as long as no police officer is watching. They claim that PhotoCop would violate their privacy, that they could be wrongly charged if someone else was driving their car, that greedy local officials want only to extract more money in fines from unsuspecting citizens.

Legislation that languished at the State Capitol for the past two years addressed these objections and more. It would limit installation of cameras to intersections where an engineer determines that a serious safety problem could not be addressed by other means. Firms that contract with cities for red-light cameras could not be paid based on the number of citations issued. Signs would have to warn drivers of the cameras before they could be activated, and they would photograph a car only after it entered an intersection against a red light.

In addition, a car owner who got a red-light ticket in the mail could challenge it on grounds that he was not the driver. He could prove that the car was stolen, leased or sold. He could testify in court that someone else was driving and ran the red light.

A violation would be a petty misdemeanor subject to about $150 in fines and court fees, probably a fraction of the real economic cost of red-light running. It could not constitute grounds for revocation or suspension of a driver's license. In addition, violations could not be entered on state driving records and reported to insurance companies.

Bipartisan legislative sponsors bent over backwards to make PhotoCop acceptable to a leery driving public. Now it's time for the rest of Minnesota's policymakers to get behind this life- and money-saving initiative that will benefit even those who think common-sense traffic laws don't apply to them.

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